Profit: the Nasty Little Word That Gives Veterinary Medicine a Bad Name

Patty Khuly
Patty Khuly

There’s no doubt about it, profit is a dirty word. If you thought otherwise, the recent Wall Street protests should’ve shifted your perspective on the subject. But is it fair to wail on profit, per se, when the truth is that most everyone reading this has to earn a living somehow — aka, turn a profit?

So it is with veterinary hospitals.

We bring together the raw materials, the overhead and the talent needed to run a practice and charge you (our clients) for services rendered to your pets (our patients), so we can pay for all those things we supplied. What’s left over is called profit.

This profit can either be taxed (at a high corporate rate) and taken home to add directly to the personal wealth of the hospital owners or it can be reinvested in the business (as when bonuses are paid to employees or new equipment is purchased). That’s how for-profit businesses work.

Interestingly, not-for-profit hospitals work much the same. The fundamental difference is that no one ever gets to take home the leftovers. Anything that remains after costs are covered gets plowed right back into the enterprise. So no one ever has to take a hit on those high corporate taxes.

This simplistic rendering is pretty much all you need to know. Everything else is just window dressing; much of it moralistic stuff our culture has applied to these two kinds of operations. As in:

For profit = bad.
Not-for-profit = good.

And veterinarians in not-for-profit hospitals don't necessarily make less money than their for-profit counterparts. (Ask Elizabeth Dole how much she took down while she headed the American Red Cross and you’ll get an idea of just how lucrative not-for-profiteering can be.)

My point? Both versions of the same entity are businesses.

So why am I belaboring it? Because it irks me to no end that:

  • Pet owners assume that not-for-profit establishments are always run by gold-hearted do-gooders who have no profit motive.
  • Conversely, it is also assumed that veterinarians who own or work in for-profit business environments are less altruistic, are interested in higher payouts or both.

These misconceptions about how veterinary practices work are born of pop culture business jargon, mostly because profit is such a darnanbly dirty word.

Which makes little sense to me, really. Profit used to have such fine connotations. But now that it’s been co-opted by modern-day robber barons and their detractors alike, veterinarians like me are sometimes treated as if we have no right to employ this foul word in a veterinary hospital setting.

And nowhere is that more true than when clients with no cash and devastatingly ill or injured pets expect us to pay for the premium services that will save their lives. “How can you think of profit at a time like this?” they ask, as if we are being heartless. Do they not understand how heartbreaking it is to have to make such devastating decisions on a daily basis? That we have to live with ourselves after euthanizing a patient because the owner cannot afford care we could have provided? That we, too, take home the grief, albeit in a much smaller way?

Yet how can we not make those tough decisions when we still have to pay the staff at the end of the week? Pay for the phone and the lights? Pay our own mortgages?

So here’s where I offer my rejoinder: It’s not profit that’s the dirty word; it’s greed. And in my experience, greed is in shockingly short supply in the veterinary profession relative to almost every other industry I can think of. But then that’s not exactly much of a defense given the world we currently live in, is it?


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