Partners or Vendors? - by Dr. Bart Barber

One of the most enjoyable aspects of being a veterinarian is the camaraderie that exists in the barn. Outside of the business of the day, health of the horses, and specific cases, there is always discussion about yesterday’s races, upcoming races, or what’s going on in the news. We always cover the latest in sports, have some heated political discussions, and tell the joke of the day.

That’s been the routine for as long as I have been a vet, but lately there has been a change.

The economy dominates nearly every conversation. Sure, we’ve spent time on Michael Phelps, the inauguration, and the miracle on the Hudson River. We even got a couple of days’ reprieve courtesy of A-Rod. But, it always comes back to the economy, and for good reason. We’ve seen another horse sale come and go with depressing yields, the cost of feed and medications have continued to rise, and handle and purses have either declined or promised to do so. Thoroughbred owners are hurting.

Everyone is justifiably looking for ways to decrease production costs without a negative impact on the end result. There are a multitude of places to look, and certainly decreasing veterinary-related expenses is part of the equation. 

Veterinarians face the same difficulties. One only has to look at human health care to understand the rising cost of the supply side of medical care. Expenses relating to the horse’s health care are more related to the general medical costs than they are the economy.

Nevertheless, most veterinarians have already taken steps to help alleviate and share the pain of owners. In many cases veterinary fees have either been frozen or decreased, some significantly. Some veterinarians have helped managers prioritize treatments and programs to help stretch dollars further. There has also been a lot of talk about alternative treatment methods that are more cost-effective.

These are all good ways to help ensure that owners are being treated fairly and their best interests are being protected.

Veterinarians have traditionally been chosen by farms or individuals to be a partner based on numerous factors, such as experience, capacity to get along with staff, recommendations of friends or an affiliation with a trusted veterinarian or veterinary hospital, and superior results. It seems that recently veterinarians are being hired or fired on one standard: price. Certainly being competitive has always been a factor, but for many it has become the only factor.

Most of us recognize that we have all done well together in the good times and we need to be there to help where we can now that things have taken a significant downturn. However, there is a bottom. That bottom comes when the standard of care for the horse has to be sacrificed in order to do it cheaper. We’ve come too far to sacrifice quality, which is the danger if it is all about price and a bidding war is forced by groups or individuals.

A manager once told me, “Veterinarians have the easy job. They drive in and take a quick look, make a recommendation, dispense some meds, and get in their trucks and drive home. We’re the ones stuck here caring for and worrying about the horse.”

That couldn’t be further from the truth.

When I drive away, that case comes with me. This is especially true when I am unable to make a diagnosis or when the prognosis is grave. Countless hours of study and unending chains of phone calls go into those cases. I lose sleep over them. My wife really doesn’t like to be around me on those days. It affects every aspect of my life. That is just the way we are. If this is not the case with your veterinarian, you don’t have a veterinary partner, you have a vendor.

Veterinary medicine is not a commodity. It is not an item on a shelf for veterinarians to dispense. It is experience, knowledge, service, and a partnership for the health of animals. Our principal product is information. We place value on what we do and our clients always have as well. This relationship and mutual respect not only can be maintained but can also be improved as we share in these tough economic times. When we come out the other side, whether it be five months or five years, the only way that we can come out is together.

Dr. Bart Barber is an ambulatory practitioner and partner at Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital in Lexington.

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