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February 9, 2018

Corporate consolidation in veterinary medicine -- and the pet world in general -- makes me worry. Here is the latest example of how it's changing my experience as a Dog Mom. Recently, I learned that the veterinary clinic I use for primary care decided to drop its AAHA accreditation. This is the latest unwelcome change at the clinic since it got bought out by one of the corporations that now collectively own about 11% of all veterinary practices in the U.S. I'm worried about what this may mean to me as a veterinary client and for the future care of my dogs.


What is AAHA Accreditation

Being accredited by the American Animal Hospital Association has always been voluntary. Yet, I've used it as a way to measure quality and commitment. When I switched veterinary hospitals many years ago, AAHA accreditation was one of the major factors I considered in my decision. 

Knowing the veterinary hospital follows specific / written standards and that they are actively and transparently accountable matters to me. I like knowing what the rules and protocols designed to keep pets safe are. I like knowing that experts in the field (some of whom I personally know) visit and "inspect" hospitals.

Is the hospital you use accredited? Look up and see on the AAHA site.

And, I don't just say that because I worked on staff at AAHA and have continued to write for the organization and many others in the veterinary profession for more than 20 years. 

I've had the opportunity to be inside more veterinary hospitals, to talk with more veterinary professionals, and to understand their business challenges more than your average pet owner. 

In many ways, knowing what I know makes it harder to be a complacent veterinary client, but I am who I am. I know what I know. I had to say something about how this feels like the latest dent in my reality due to corporate consolidation in veterinary medicine.

My Complaint Letter

I mailed a complaint letter to the veterinary practice manager, and I cc'd my veterinarian and the chief operating officer of the corporation that owns the clinic (along with about 500 others). It read in part ...

Along with other disappointing changes I’ve experienced since [Name of Company] first bought the clinic, this decision makes me worry.

I worry that [Name of Company] is shifting its focus away from the needs and expectations of Dog Moms like me.

What I've Since Learned

Soon after my letter arrived, I received a phone call. Here's some of what I was told.

The decision for the veterinary clinic to drop its AAHA accreditation came after a new practice manager started working at the clinic in February 2017. 

This new practice manager also dropped AAHA accreditation at another hospital where she previously worked. 

Oddly enough, I know that hospital too. It was formerly owned a veterinarian I met in the 1990s when he was on the AAHA board of directors. He also took care of the hedgehog we once had at a time when it was a lot harder to find veterinary care for "exotic" pets. He went on to be the president of the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA). He even wrote a "blurb" for my pet loss book before it came out to lend his support to my efforts. 

I also learned that the new practice manager has worked for veterinary hospitals owned by two of the other big corporations that play a major role in corporate consolidation in veterinary medicine. 

My Concerns Won't Change Anything

I've been told I'm the ONLY person who has noticed the drop of AAHA accreditation.

I've been told it was a group decision that included the veterinarians. (I have reason to believe that is NOT the case, but I can't say more.)

I've been told the quality of care is higher than AAHA requires, but those corporate standards are not written down anywhere that I could read, review, or compare for myself.

I was also given a number of examples of advancements to defend the decision, but all of them seemed silly to me because they are NOT anything new or innovative to high-end dog people like you and me. 

Example: Rabies vaccine every 3 years (instead of annually)

Go ahead and laugh, longtime readers, as you imagine my face when *that* topic came up.

It probably would have been a good idea to know who I am before trying to "educate" me. (Yes, that's the word used to describe the purpose of the 45-minute phone call in response to my letter.) 

Of course, there are other reasons behind the clinic's decision to drop its accreditation, including the costs and various challenges membership organizations now face as technology and other societal changes give people many more ways to connect -- formally and informally, personally and professionally.

I think it's something to watch. As corporate consolidation in veterinary medicine continues to snap up successful veterinary practices in hot markets, I would guess we may see more of them drop things like accreditation.

Is There Reason to Worry?

I think so. I worry that Dog Moms like me will become increasingly LESS important to decision makers, despite our spending power (600% more annually than the national average) and roles as influencers in the dog space. 

I'm never going to be the target market for certain types of corporate-owned veterinary clinics that focus on routine care for the masses. However, the more that corporate consolidation in veterinary medicine keeps grabbing high-end veterinary practices that typically HAVE served the needs of dog people like me, the more I worry that I'll have a harder time finding a veterinary hospital that meets my high expectations.

I work hard to maintain good working relationships with our various veterinarians -- both primary care and specialty care. 

I worry that they will feel MORE pressure as corporate employees that cannot help but affect what happens in the exam room. (Like in this novel I reviewed back in 2014 where one of the characters works for a corporate veterinary practice and gets spied on via video camera to make sure quotas for upselling get met.)

Experts predict that consolidation in the pet space will only continue, with:

Think about it. When was the last time, you received personalized and quality care from big-chain hardware stores, optical shops, pharmacies, or human healthcare organizations? All of those professions have seen big companies drive out most independent businesses. 

And it isn't just clinics getting bought out through corporate consolidation in veterinary medicine, the consolidation includes pet-focused media companies, boarding kennels and dog daycares, and I wouldn't be surprised to see franchise / chain dog training centers becoming part of these much larger companies.

Corporate Consolidation in Veterinary Medicine is Already Affecting Me

Corporate consolidation in veterinary medicine is ALREADY CHANGING my experience with veterinary care. Here are a few examples:

  • Getting calls from a call center where the person calling didn't even say the correct name of the veterinary clinic 

    That was the first hint that maybe something had changed.
  • Getting calls from a call center where the person had no idea who I am or who my dogs are and knew exactly ZERO about veterinary topics. 

    Even though, I didn't recognize the caller's name, I asked her a question like I would of staff at the clinic, and it was super clear that she couldn't even pretend to know me and had exactly ZERO knowledge about veterinary topics.
  • Getting appointment "reminder" calls from a call center for appointments I never made NOR needed

    Example: It appears that the clinic's computer system automatically set up certain types of routine or recheck appointments in 3-month, 6-month, and 1-year intervals for care my dogs "needed." Except here's the thing. I know what my dogs need, and I'll schedule appointments that work with my schedule. The first few times this happened, I said, "There must be a mistake. I didn't schedule any appointments." 

    Who even knew that "push" veterinary care was a thing?
  • Getting calls to remind me about "overdue" care that was not relevant or appropriate

    In one case, the overdue thing was a routine fecal test. Except you see, our frail, geriatric dog had literally just gotten out of the specialty hospital after several days for hemorrhagic gastroenteritis. Intestinal parasites were the LEAST of my worries. I thought it was our main veterinarian calling to see how Ginko was doing. Instead, it was some call center person who had no idea who I was, no idea that I'd just walked in the door from picking him up from the specialty hospital, and no idea that her "medical recommendations" were both inappropriate and insulting.
  • Getting emails and postcards (after I opted myself out of call center calls because they made me furious) about "overdue" routine care -- like vaccines that aren't actually overdue at all. 

    I like to think that the people at the clinic who actually know me, remember how Lilly died and know that we follow AAHA's updated vaccine guidelines that now include recommendations for use of titer testing for things like distemper and parvo.

All of these things started to happen after a big company bought the primary care veterinary practice I use. And, I don't like it one bleeping bit. It all feels too mass produced, pushy, and profit driven to me. 

If the veterinary team I actually know in real life wants to remind me about something specific with one of my dogs, that's fine, but do NOT have some know-nothing person in a call center in another state call me. Ugh!

The for-profit and non-veterinary backgrounds of some of the company's executives bother me a lot too. 

What Now?

Good question. Even after my early and extreme DISSATISFACTION after the corporate consolidation in veterinary medicine affected the clinic, I hung in there. Switching to this hospital in the first place was a BIG DEAL to me. I figured I could keep doing what I'm doing at least until our main veterinarian retires. 

I would reassess then. 

BUT, I fear the new manager and the AAHA thing on top of the corporate thing might speed up her retirement plans. I don't know, of course, and I don't want to put her in a weird position by asking if all this is stressing her out, but I do worry ... because she works really hard and deserves to be happy and respected and supported in her work. 

The hospital we'd most likely choose if we did make a change is ALSO now part of a bigger group of practices. It's a bit different because in that situation the handful of practices are essentially "banding together" to try and stay independent and to fend off the big corporations, so to speak. 

However, there have been some adjustments there too. I attribute the glitches I've seen mostly to growing pains, but we'll see if things settle down soon. I hope so. 

My area of Colorado is VERY competitive in terms of the number of veterinary hospitals, including many that are still privately owned and AAHA accredited. So I do have options. I just don't know how much longer independent hospitals will be able hang in there.

I don't want to switch and then have to switch again, if the same darn thing happens at another hospital later. I'm a fiercely loyal person, and I do NOT want the care my dogs receive to be compromised because of all these changes and my feelings about them.

All predictions are that corporate consolidation in veterinary medicine will continue. I share my worries and frustrations with you so that you can keep an eye on these issues in your communities. 

Because Here is the thing ...

ALL 3 VETERINARY HOSPITALS we've used in the last 20 years (for primary and specialty veterinary care) are now owned by bigger corporations. My area of Colorado must look lucrative to these big companies.

Is your veterinary hospital owned by a big company? What do you like about it (or not)?

About the Author Roxanne Hawn

Trained as a traditional journalist and based in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, USA, I'm a full-time freelance writer for magazines, websites, and private clients. My areas of specialty include everything in the lifestyles arena, including health and home, personal finance and other consumer interests, relationships and trends, people and business profiles ... and, of course, all things pet related.

I don't just love dogs. I need them in my life. Seriously.

  1. A while ago you mentioned your concern over your Animal Hospital dropping the AAHA accreditation. The more important thing is the care given by the doctors and staff. The willingness to share their information with you [keeping you in the loop] and knowing when to refer you to the best specialty hospital is far more important to me than holding the AAHA accreditation.

    When I moved from the Boston area to the Atlanta area I began my search for an animal hospital comparable to what I had in MA which was state of the art, (but not AAHA). After interviewing several animal hospitals and being told how important AAHA accreditation was to the health of my dog, I chose a hospital that was AAHA.

    After 3 months of antibiotics and acupuncture with no lasting results (no offer of a referral hospital) I felt they obviously weren’t equipped to treat allergies or Cushings.

    Prior to dental cleaning and tooth extraction, I requested a complete CBC senior profile. I was referred to another AAHA Vet who specialized in animal dentals. The Doctor said he would forward the CBC profile, but never did. The Dental Surgeon never received the blood profile yet preformed the cleaning and tooth extraction then gave him Rimadyl which made him sick at his stomach. If she had taken the time to check with his Vet as to why she hadn’t received any information from him, including any reactions to any drugs, she would have had the necessary information.

    Needless to say, I went in search of a Dog Dermatologist and Allergist (she happened to be AAHA). I also searched out another Animal Hospital. He was not AAHA but the care I received was far better and tailored to the needs of my dog. He offered his private mobile number in case of emergency.

    Back in New England now, and my emergency center is AAHA, but my Animal Hospital is not.

  2. Excellent article Roxanne. I read it when you first posted but didn’t have a chance to comment. The vet I go to is not accredited. She owns her practice, I believe. I’ll have to ask her why when I see her next week.

  3. A practice I left for pushing extra vaccinations and commercial foods has been acquired; the local Vets I like the most have been in practice a long time – the 1 I use for acupuncture just retired and I worry that my general practice might too. I am very concerned about this trend.

  4. Well, I just checked for the accreditation and there is only 1 on my area. Now I need to find out why the vet I use isn’t accredited and who owns them. Thanks for the heads up Roxanne. Money has become everything to some people. It’s sickening but becoming more and more prevalent I believe, in all areas of our life.

    1. Agreed. This kind of consolidation is everywhere. Good luck with your accreditation and ownership research. Usually, you can look up the major veterinary corporations online and see if your hospital is owned by them.

  5. I know you don’t want to switch and then switch again but I do what is best for my dogs (as I know you do too) so I would switch even if it meant switching again. I personally do not look for the accreditation but look for a small town vet who knows what they are doing. That has served me well over the 20 plus years I have had dogs.

    1. I really feel like continuity of care is really important too, and having to start over again and again makes me worry, so for now, I’ll hold tight, but we’ll see how things develop in the coming months. I might have to change.

  6. Wal-Mart, Amazon, Blue Buffalo. I’m sure Chewy dot com is going to be next in line for horrible customer service. I haven’t noticed clinics around here in Worcester, Massachusetts consolidating but I know vets closer to Boston have. Not good.

    1. For sure. The consolidation in pet supplies is an issue as well. You’re lucky that the veterinary hospitals in your area are still mostly independent. That’s not the case in our little pocket of CO.

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