The effects of Covid-19 on veterinary practice in the UK
This time last year, few of us could have imagined the trajectory that global events would take, or the myriad impacts those events would have on every single one of us. Much of the fallout has been of a personal nature – our social lives, health (both mental and physical, including that of friends and loved ones), financial security, hobbies, celebrations, and more.
The businesses of the world have also been impacted. Every industry has had to change and adapt, some to increased demand – who’d have guessed that a pandemic would boost sales of compost by 250% – and some to reduced demand – we are all acutely aware of the lack of trade going the way of the travel industry. The majority of businesses have had to change their ways of working to a greater or lesser extent, and some have found incredibly creative solutions to the new problems they’ve faced.
The veterinary profession has, for the most part, been mercifully resilient, as pet-owners display heart-warming determination to keep caring for their (predominantly) furry friends as best as they possibly can. Pet ownership has also increased significantly, either as an antidote to the loneliness of lockdown, or as motivation to exercise. Practices dealing exclusively with food animal species have, for the most part, avoided many of the issues arising from COVID-19 due to the critical nature of the part they play in feeding the population, and the fact that most of their work is performed outdoors. Equine-specific practices have also been less dramatically affected, again likely due to the fact that a lot of their work can be done outside. However, both food animal and equine practices have suffered the same staff shortages that have affected the small animal sector, and it would be disingenuous to say that veterinary practices have been completely unscathed. In fact, far from it.
The most recent (fifth) RCVS survey, published on 23rd December 20203, reveals that many practices are still using remote consulting to a greater or lesser extent, and a study published by CM Research on 22nd January 20214 suggests that almost half (49%) of UK practices are still offering ‘kerbside’ appointments. Home visits, nurse appointments, and EMS placements have all taken a hit3 as practices attempt to prioritise, often with reduced staff numbers due to illness, self-isolation, or ‘bubble’ working practices. Routine preventative pet healthcare has seen particularly dramatic impacts – 60% of UK practices either reduced or stopped their vaccination work; microchipping and pet passport appointments declined in number, and antiparasiticide sales fell.
Staff mental health has been strained like never before, as workloads increased for those ‘manning the fort’; boredom, guilt and loneliness have affected those furloughed, or self-isolating as a result of illness or the contact tracing scheme. The silver lining to this cloud is that mental health awareness is at an all-time high, colleagues are looking out for each other, and bosses are actively seeking out mental health training and support resources for their teams.
Uncertainty about the future has also taken its toll, with 46% of UK respondents to the CM Research study saying they expect the situation will get worse before it gets better. (Note that whilst this study was published during the third national lockdown, the responses were gathered in December 2020, prior to said lockdown.) At the time of writing, the Prime Minister has just announced his plans for a ‘roadmap’ out of the restrictions, and I suspect many of us will have marked the 21st June – auspiciously, the longest day of the year – in our calendars in some positive way!
Despite all of this, clinic revenue is either unchanged or improved for the majority of UK practices, and client numbers are, on average, up. A significant majority (more than 75%) of practices state that business is either back to normal, or near normal. Only 2% of practices in Western Europe that closed temporarily are still closed, and only 3% of practices have closed permanently.
CPD has been extremely popular throughout the pandemic, particularly in the early stages when those on furlough, ill, or self-isolating had the opportunity to access a plethora of fantastic, often freely available, online content.
As a diagnostic imaging company, we have gained insight from our customers throughout this pandemic as to how the above mentioned staff shortages, new ways of working and other factors may have impacted the use of diagnostic imaging in practice. In the next article in this series, we’ll explore further the impact that the pandemic has had on the imaging workflow in practices across the UK, and in subsequent articles we’ll explore ways in which we might be able to address some of those issues.
In summary, there is no escaping the fact that this pandemic has impacted all of us as individuals, and the industry as a whole. We’ve all experienced the outbreak in different ways: some have suffered appalling personal tragedy; others feel keenly the sting of isolation and loneliness; still more carry the burden of responsibility for the ongoing wellbeing of their teams. Out of that, though, comes hope. There is light at the end of the tunnel; we have proven that as a group of individuals we can be adaptable, courageous, kind, and resilient. It seems unlikely that the world as we knew it will ever be quite the same again, but as vets we can be sure we’ll use this opportunity to make our part of it, our profession, even better than it was before.
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