Veterinary Practice Owners vs. Associates: Does It Matter If Your Veterinarian Owns Her Practice?

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Most of the veterinarians I know have told me they decided they wanted to enter this glorious profession when they were barely out of diapers. And I’m no different. I had visions of monkeys, hippos, and horses in my head even way back then. I certainly never considered that becoming a veterinarian would have anything to do with entrepreneurship.

I mean, after all that natural exuberance got channeled into veterinary scholastic enterprises, the last thing any of us wanted to think about was owning and running a business. Yet, just twenty years ago, most of my veterinary school compatriots assumed that’s exactly what they’d be doing.

That’s just the way it was. Get your degree, hang up a shingle, and get cracking. It was simply understood that all but the least motivated among us would strive to claim an ownership stake in a business.

And we had good reason for it. We assumed that if we were going to practice veterinary medicine, we were damn well going to make sure we could do so on our terms with the maximum financial benefits our education could confer. Makes some sense, right?

Fast forward twenty years and, increasingly, veterinarians are graduating from school with a clear understanding that we’ll never own a practice. And, primarily, that’s because we –– as a group –– are coming to believe that owning a business should have less to do with being a veterinarian than it once did.

Go ahead and ask the average senior veterinary school student about practice ownership. The typical answer will be equivocal, at best. Compared to the generations that preceded them, this batch of veterinarians simply doesn’t consider practice ownership a necessity.

After all, being a great veterinarian is what it’s all about. Honing your skills, delving into the research, learning the ins and outs of getting your patients needs met. With all that to worry about, who has time for trying to figure out what costs what, how the bills get paid, and who gets what kind of benefits?

Now we’re getting somewhere.

But here’s the thing: having a non-owner (we call them associates) treating your pets for the entirety of his or her career necessarily affects the way veterinary medicine is practiced. Indeed, I believe that associate-driven veterinary medicine potentially represents a dramatic shift in the way your pets receive their veterinary services. But how?

It’s tough to know how it’ll all shake out but here are some emerging truisms that apply to associate vs. practice-owning veterinarians for your consideration:

  1. Associate veterinarians work fewer hours and enjoy more flexible schedules than our hospital-owning colleagues. Our overall work-life stress tends to be less than that of our employers.

  2. Armed with a better sense of ourselves as “free agents,” we tend to hop from hospital to hospital more often than similarly skilled veterinarians did in the past.

  3. Associate veterinarians experience greater frustration at being unable to control certain aspects of our work life, particularly when it comes to quality of patient care and staff management (generally considered the two most critical elements to our job satisfaction levels, discounting the issues of free time and compensation). Because it’s true –– practice owners enjoy more of the simple satisfactions that come with greater control over one’s immediate environment.

  4. Associates are, on average, less financially stable than our practice-owning counterparts. We know what the trade-off is and we accept it. But that doesn’t mean we don’t experience the stress that accompanies the long-term financial aspects of having a smaller paycheck. Add that to the fact that we’ve got more debt than ever before and it makes sense that we’d be suffering a bit of financial strain.

  5. Associates have the luxury of directing our continuing education efforts more completely towards medicine relative to practice owners. We also tend to have more time to digest journals and generally focus our professional selves on the science and practice of veterinary medicine instead of the time-consuming managerial side of practice life.

  6. I may be wrong here, but it seems to me that practice owners are in a better position to take a more holistic view of veterinary medicine. It’s not just the medicine, the clients, and the animals that drive them. It’s the bigger issues of economic forces and government policy that also stimulate curiosity and build interest in their profession as a whole.

To be sure, there’s a lot of mixing between the two types of veterinarians. For example, I’ve been a practice owner before but I now prefer to work as an associate. And might I become a practice owner again at some point in the future? Perhaps…

In general, however, these six points do help draw a broad line between these two kinds of veterinarians.

But the question is not so much about how these differences affect the individuals. The key is to attempt to project them onto the wider screen of the entire profession to help solve the major issues that afflict the profession. Because what’s at stake is more than just our own quality of life… it’s the quality of our patients’ care.