Is your veterinarian too competitive?

A few miles from my home, there are two small farms located on the same road—one along the West side and one along the East side. They exist on a small stretch of the street, with not more than a tenth of a mile or so separating the two.

Both farms sell fresh produce, flowers, and locally prepared food and craft items in the summer and fall months. Both currently offer pumpkin picking, corn mazes, and family-oriented activities, such as hayrides, pony rides, and bounce houses in celebration of Halloween and all things wonderfully autumn.

Though farms are not particularly unusual here on the Eastern portion of Long Island, it is peculiar to find two in such close proximity to each other. Especially when both are practically exactly the same in appearance, what they offer, and price. It’s a mystery to me how two exceedingly similar ventures successfully exist within less than a tenth of a mile of each other.

Of course I lack an understanding of specifics related to truly how successful each farm is. I don’t actually know whether they are rivals or are co-owned by the same individuals. I lack the proper background in marketing or economics that could afford me the ability to fully comprehend the “whys” behind how two seemingly competitive endeavors can willingly co-exist peacefully and profitably when all surface data suggests the results should be the opposite.

What I do know is that in some geographical areas, the same scenario exists for veterinary clinics. There may be several located within a short radius, or even on the same road, just as the farms near my home. Experience tells me that, unlike the idyllic farms I’ve described above, competition amongst neighboring vet hospitals can be fierce.

Competition isn’t necessarily a bad thing for veterinarians. It forces us to strive to deliver the highest quality of medicine possible. We can’t be comfortable with being average when there are above average clinics located just a few miles away. We need to be able to offer owners something more significant than our neighboring counterparts. It also helps keep costs down and prevent inflation of prices for services.

But competition can create negativity as well. Competition can lead to inappropriate bad mouthing of peers. It can cause strain amongst staff members. It makes job security a questionable commodity. And competition can create an inappropriate sense of entitlement.

This inter-clinic competition extends to the level of a referral hospitals, such as where I see my appointments. Our doctors are board certified in specialty areas of veterinary medicine. We possess advanced diagnostic equipment on par with that available at human hospitals. We have specific areas of expertise that distinguish us from primary care veterinarians. In theory, specialists already possess the necessary “edge” over our competitors because what we have to offer is only available at our hospital.

Yet specialists struggle with competition with primary veterinarians. Troubled economic times, skepticism of how others practice, inflated personalities, lack of perception of value of referral medicine – each contribute to veterinarians (and owners) wanting to keep things within the confines of their comfortable exam rooms.

I wasn’t prepared for this angle of medicine during my veterinary school and residency training. In the confines of the ivory tower of an academic institution, I was sheltered from these concerns. I also naively assumed everyone simply got along with each other and when cases became complicated or were better suited for treatment at a specialty level, a referral would be made.

The real world dictates this idealist view occurs far less frequently than I’d hoped. I still find it shocking when I witness competition motivated by what appears to be selfish goals rather than what is in the patient’s best interests. I’m not speaking of owners who decline referral for personal, emotional, or financial reasons. The situations I speak of are far more complex in nature, and rooted in a more worrying aspect that such rivalry can bring.

I still uphold that competition can be good for veterinarians. But we need to keep our fundamentals in check and always ensure we are first doing no harm and are always doing the right thing by our patients and clients.

Assuming the owners of the small farms near my house are doing the right thing, shouldn’t veterinarians be able to do the same?


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