Three questions for … Dr. Bob Cartin (and a NAVC teaser)

I’ve been more quiet than usual on social media this week because I’ve been happily buried in some very exciting work. Nationwide ®/ VPI has been working with economists at the Purdue’s Krannert School of Management on a project that will have everyone in the veterinary community buzzing on Monday morning. We’ll be releasing some big news at the North American Veterinary Community Conference on Sunday evening. You can find out  for yourself at 7 p.m. ET time Sunday night right here, so check back.

As for me, I’ll be in Orlando soon. But before I leave home, I want to share a new “Three Questions for …” feature, this one on Dr. Bob Cartin of the Mission Animal & Bird Hospital in Oceanside, Calif. A 1979 graduate of the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, Dr. Cartin is a well-known practitioner, and his Mission Animal & Bird Hospital was Veterinary Economics’ 2011 Hospital of the year. Dr. Cartin bought the practice in 1988, and now oversees a business with 10 senior doctors and three interns, and a total staff of 55.  I really enjoyed our interview, and I think you will, too.

What do you think has changed most in veterinary practice since you began your career, and how has it affected how you run your practice?

As we readied to graduate from veterinary school, I remember a number of our classmates having a discussion about our future in practice. Someone said, “wouldn’t it be great if people treated their pets like kids?” This was long before any of us heard the term “human-animal bond.”

Probably the most significant change I have seen in veterinary medicine since I graduated 35 years ago is that pets now are, indeed, family members. This has brought our profession unbelievable opportunities for advancement, as well as tremendous changes and awesome responsibilities.

Because of this incredible bond, pet-owners have allowed us to advance our care to a level which rivals human health care in much of the world. Three decades ago, I don’t think that anyone in our profession could have dreamed of providing oncological care to a 15-year-old retriever, running a blood panel on a budgie or providing laser therapy to a  bunny — perhaps, all in the same day.

Dr. Bob CartinAt the same time, the pet-owners’ expectations of us have risen to unprecedented (and sometimes unrealistic) levels. When compared to 20 years ago, today’s pet-owner is incredibly informed and expects (demands) to be engaged with us in the care of their pet.

Because of the willingness of the pet-owning public to spend money on their furry, feathered or scaly family member, there are now an incredible number of businesses and organizations (i.e., the big box stores, online pharmacies, humane and rescue organizations, trainers, groomers, kennels, breeders, and, of course, Dr. Internet) competing with veterinarians not only to provide services and products, but also to disseminate information about pet care. The more choices that a consumer has, the less satisfied he or she is with anything less than stellar care and service. We are no longer measured against service at other veterinary hospitals; we are compared to the service that the consumer receives at the finest restaurant, hotel or retail store.

Generational differences, and how they affect everything that we do, have never been greater. Particularly among Generation X and the Millennials, satisfaction no longer equates to loyalty. Whereas my generation, and those older, tended to stay with a business until it failed them, the younger consumer is ready to quickly jump to the “next great thing.” Being just “good” is no longer “good enough.” Veterinarians who don’t raise their game by bonding with their clients (by offering a higher quality compassionate care and better customer service and/or doing something very different) risk becoming invisible in the pet-care world.

The veterinary profession must do a better job at improving the pet-owners’ perception of the value of their pets’ veterinary care. Also, we all need to find ways to make our services more affordable to those who want it but maybe can’t afford a large bill all at once. The more successful practices have already embraced such vehicles as wellness plans, monthly auto-debiting, and pet insurance that provide pet-owners with ways to pay for the pet care that we recommend and that pet-owners want.

“Competition” used to mean other practices in your region. Now it means so much more — Dr. Internet, “big box” retailers for both products and pharmacy, etc. How do you cut through the “noise” to reach potential clients and retain current ones?

I am fortunate to speak with and consult with many practices across the country. One of my favorite series of questions to ask is, “What is extraordinary about your practice? If your practice was to close tomorrow, what could your clients not get within three to five miles?”

Invariably, someone says, “We have the smartest doctors” or “We have the most caring staff.” However, the public assumes that all doctors are smart and all veterinary staff members are caring. Amid the tens of thousands of messages that all of us receive (and subconsciously filter out) every day in this Information Age, all practices need to find something that makes them stand out from others. At our hospital:

  • We are open seven days a week and 24 hours a day;
  • We provide medical, surgical, dental, boarding, doggie day camp and grooming services for cats, dogs, birds, reptiles, small mammals, wildlife and even chickens and pot-bellied pigs;
  • We work with the San Diego Humane Society and many other rescue/adoption groups. With our closest rescue partner, Last Chance at Life, last year we helped save and re-home more than 200 pets, all of whom were slated for euthanasia because of medical and/or behavioral issues;
  • We offer “pay by the month” Wellness Plans, pet insurance and monthly auto-debits for many services and products;
  • We have an internship program for new graduates as well as hosting a number of vet tech and vet assistant students;
  • We are deeply involved in many community outreach programs and even make our multi-purpose room available to any group for their meetings, at no charge;
  • And, of course, we have very smart doctors. and our veterinary staff is very caring!

However, even with the myriad of advancements, changes and challenges, some things have not changed in the past 10, 20 or 30 years. I have been fortunate to have had a number of wonderful mentors over the years. The lessons that I learned many years ago still hold true today.

After my first two of years of practice, I was ready to move on to my own practice. Dr. Gary Burge told me “Practice the kind of medicine that you learned in school, take care of the client and your team and the money will take care of it itself.” That became a guiding principal in my veterinary career. One of the mantras at my hospital is that people vote with their dollars and making money is simply a by-product of providing great veterinary care and superior customer service.

What are you watching in 2015 as regards your practice?

I am looking forward to the coming year with great anticipation. While the recession was undoubtedly difficult for many practices and pet-owners, I believe that there was a silver lining. First, it pushed successful practices to raise their game to a higher level as pet-owners (like most consumers) were forced to look for better value for their dollars. Also, during the last five or six difficult years, I believe that many pet-owners became even more bonded to their pets. For many people, having less money meant more nights at home watching television with their pets on their laps. Rather than spending a weekend away, pet-owners chose no- or low-cost recreational alternatives, such taking their dog for a walk in the park. This strengthened the bond with their pet even more. This, coupled with a renewed sense of optimism as the economy improves, bodes well for veterinarians as we strive to provide better care.

As far as what we are doing in my practice in the year to come. …

While 2015 is the “Year of the Goat” on the Chinese calendar, it is the “Year of the Cat” at Mission Animal & Bird Hospital. Twenty years ago, we cared for approximately the same number of dogs and cats. Now, it is six dogs to every one cat. Our practice  — and, I believe, much of our profession — has done a very poor job of connecting with people who keep cats. Consequently, these cats have not received the care that they deserve.

We have plans to reach out to cat-owners in the form of additional staff training as to the needs, wants and differences of cat-owners, more feline-specific eBlasts, client seminars on feline health care (including behavior), better promotion of our Feline Wellness Plans and more house calls for our feline patients.

2015 promises to be a very exciting year!


I completely agree! Thank you Dr. Cartin, and see you at the NAVC! We’re in Booth No. 1525 in the Gaylord and No. 3701 in the Marriott World Center.