Animal Hospital

If you’re like most of my clients, you probably think any veterinarian who has been around for a bit should own her own practice — or part of it, anyway. You’ll assume she has the ambition and the wherewithal to take her skills to the next level — that is, if she’s worth her salt.

Here’s where I confess: My name is Dr. Patty Khuly, and I don’t own a veterinary practice. Not yet, anyway. And, yes, you’re right. Mine is an uncommon career choice for a veterinarian of my age who has been practicing as long and as happily as I have.  

To be sure, I don’t have to justify my personal life choices to anyone except myself. Yet I think an explanation might offer you some valuable insight into the inner lives of veterinarians.

Life Gets in the Way

It’s true; eschewing practice ownership doesn’t make me feel particularly virtuous or successful as a mid-career veterinarian. And I suspect the same is true of many of my ambitious yet not-yet-practice-owning colleagues. But that’s sometimes how it goes. Here are some factors that have contributed to my nontraditional vet career trajectory:

  • Money: I attended an expensive vet school, which means I had big debts when I graduated (more than $100,000!). I then moved to Miami, where almost half of my admittedly better-than-average veterinarian’s income goes into my not-so-luxurious home (though my yard rocks). Between student loan payments and the mortgage, scraping together $50,000 for a down payment on a clinic hasn’t been easy, which is why practice ownership has thus far proved elusive.
  • Single parenthood: It’s a common refrain. Many of my vet friends have elected to go it alone. It’s a life choice that usually means less support, financial and otherwise, but it’s an increasingly common one. 
  • Time: The single-parent thing probably explains this pretty well. It explains why flexible hours are a requirement for my working life. And while I don’t mind putting in long hours, finding ways to increase my flextime has required lots of creativity. 
  • Fear of commitment: Life as a practice owner seems all-consuming. Which is not to say building and selling a practice isn’t desirable or laudable, but what would I have to give up? Would I be unable to explore other challenging sidelines to my career — like writing? Would I still be able to go kayaking in the Keys on Sundays if I owned a practice?

More Veterinarians Forgo Ownership

Though this brief list explains my own life’s story (somewhat), my many conversations with colleagues over the years echo its sentiments almost exactly — increasingly so as the veterinarians seem to get younger all around me. In fact, a recent trade publication noted that interest in practice ownership among veterinarians is shrinking. In 2006, 53 percent of non-owning veterinarians surveyed had plans to own a practice, while only 30 percent felt that way in 2012. In addition to the reasons I listed, the article added the following:

  • Focus: Many veterinarians find fulfillment in honing their medical skills and have little interest in acquiring the business knowledge necessary for practice ownership.
  • Specialization: Some veterinarians pursue additional education to become specialists, such as cardiologists, dermatologists and ophthalmologists, and move from general practices to specialty centers or universities.
  • Competition: With the growth of corporate practices, a small clinic owned by one or two veterinarians just can’t compete in terms of buying power, staffing or marketing.
  • The money (again): Compared to a decade or two ago, today’s practice owners need to invest in a lot more high-tech equipment, from ultrasound machines to digital X-ray equipment and paperless medical record systems. By some estimates, it can take a $2 million outlay just for a good facility in the right location.

Making the Commitment

Still, plenty of my peers have taken the plunge. But most of these (so far) have typically graduated with little debt, lived in an economically stable area with only modest veterinary competition and experienced a steady growth in their income-to-expense ratio (in spite of the recent economic downturn). What’s more, most of these have either always embraced the concept of practice ownership or came of age in a culture where breadwinning was a huge measure of their personal worth.

Sure, practice ownership has always been held up as proof of success in our profession. And while respect for making money and proving your worth with a sizable financial undertaking hasn’t changed much over time, some veterinarians now find that being a good doctor is enough. Still, practice ownership confers significant advantages in terms of prestige and financial remuneration relative to life as an employee veterinarian (like me).

But that doesn’t mean I have to like it. Or choose it. Nonetheless, I’m thinking about it. Now that my colleagues at the place I’ve practiced for the last 16 years are planning to retire, my hand might be forced. What’s better — a lifestyle that’s busier and initially more expensive than I might like? Or a boss I might abhor?

Hmm. The scales may be starting to tip.

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