VetScript editor's pick: August 2019 - Handling equine in Alex

They’re out there in the provinces and the cities, veterinarians doing the everyday work in neighbourhood and country clinics. In this series, VetScript visits a different small clinic every month.

This month, Bette Flagler visits Rebecca (Becci) Bishop of Central Lakes Equine.

When did you open your practice?

I opened the practice just a few months ago – on 5 November 2018. It’s been super busy and the positive support from the horse community has been overwhelming. I wanted to set up a professional practice that had a good environment for me to work in and to do what I like doing. My daughter was six months old on the day we opened, and my thinking prior had been, “If I’m going to have a family, I want to go to work, really enjoy my day and come home really positive”. I thought the best way for me to find the environment that I wanted long term was to create it for myself.

How did you end up in Alexandra?

I went to Bristol University in the UK and graduated in 2009. I moved to New Zealand that year for a job with Vetlife in Oamaru. I worked there for two years and became the yellow-eyed penguin veterinarian, which I really enjoyed. I then did a six-month locum at Massey University – primarily in equine anaesthesia, but I did all kinds of anaesthesia. Following that, I was offered an equine rotational internship, and I did that for a year. I came back to Alexandra and worked for Vetlife doing equine work. An opportunity to further my career came along through a job at Canterbury Equine Clinic where I worked for three years. Then Kuran – who grew up and lived in Alexandra – and I got married and had a baby.

Are you a specialist?

No. I’m a general veterinarian and I have done my memberships in equine medicine. At one time I considered becoming a specialist, but upskilling as a good, first-opinion equine veterinarian suits me better at this stage. I think we underestimated the importance of that kind of work. For referrals we have Brendan Bell in Invercargill, who is a fantastic veterinarian, and Canterbury Equine Clinic. If it’s something like a colic surgery, I alert colleagues along the route who are available to meet clients to check in, top-up pain relief or, if there’s a complete disaster, to euthanase.

How did you get things going? How do you manage after-hours?

I think the most important thing when you open a practice is to let the existing local practices be the first to know that you’re starting up. That’s professional courtesy. I was lucky because I had worked in Alexandra before so some people knew me. I did free educational seminars to remind people who I was, and a Facebook campaign to let people know I was coming. I now have nearly 700 people who follow me on Facebook. On Fridays, I post about an educational topic that’s seasonal or topical. A lot of the people around here who have horses are active Facebook users, so that works well for marketing to and educating clients.

When I was setting up, I talked to the larger veterinary companies about my plans to open a mobile clinic. They have been very supportive of my coming into the area. I share after-hours with other local veterinarians, which is working out really well.

What’s your set-up?

I am currently ambulatory and work from my truck. I hire a facility at a local farm that has a crush where I can do breeding, some standing surgeries and dental work. I can also meet clients from outside the immediate area there. I have designated days when I travel to various locations.

In addition to my vehicle, I have an office, laboratory and drugs room with secure storage at my house. This allows me to store drugs safely and do some basic blood work. Often I do the haematology in my laboratory and send other things to a pathology lab. If I get it to the courier by 3.30pm I have the results by 10 the next morning.

What’s your business philosophy?

To me, the veterinary profession should not be about making money by selling drugs, it should be about selling professional opinion and expertise. That’s what I want it to be, and I think we’ve lost sight of that. I charge well for my professional opinions and services, but I’m really affordable with drugs.

I’ve had clients who think they can get things cheaper online ask me for prescriptions. When I tell them what I charge, they realise it’s not only more convenient to buy from me, but the same prices. I didn’t research the prices of drugs online when I set up my fees, I just thought about what things cost me and what I thought was fair to charge. I’ve had people say that I don’t charge enough for products like pentosan. That’s a common arthritis drug and it’s a long-term commitment; I’d rather have more patients on it than fewer, and as long as I’m covering my costs and making a bit from the fact that I’m a professional selling it, then I don’t see why I need to charge more. But, as I said, I charge well for my consultations and my clients understand that they are getting a fully rounded service. You need to build relationships where clients trust you. I think we forget about follow-up trade, but follow-up is really important. I don’t want clients who just ring for emergencies. I want clients who really love horse health and want to do the best, and who want to make management plans that prevent the need for medicine.

I advise clients upfront that I don’t run accounts and they need to pay as they go. I have a mobile EFTPOS machine, or clients can make bank transfers on the day. If they are a bit late, they get a late payment fee. They know that if they don’t pay, they get sacked. For emergencies I’m more flexible and can set up payment plans.

What’s your practice model?

My practice model is based on good client communication and education. If you don’t know something, you can look up details later, but communicating well with the client at the time is what matters most. For education, I do the Facebook posts and I’m speaking at EQUITANA and Equidays this year. I run annual ‘Winter Woolies’ educational seminars for my clients. This year I did presentations in June at Wānaka, Arrowtown and Alexandra about lameness, bad behaviour and colic.

The equine industry is so flooded with people who say they know what they’re talking about, but they don’t. I think part of my job is to be able to get the facts and tell clients what’s true and what’s not true.

You’re a one-person show. How do you keep all the balls in the air?

A lot of my bookings are by text message and email. Clients send photos and ask ‘Do you think you need to see her?’ I don’t think veterinarians need to rush out to see everything.

There is one piece of paper explaining our services and policies that new clients need to sign (and I’m working on an app for that), otherwise we are completely paperless. I do all the clinical notes on the iPad when I’m on-farm. The aim is at the end of the day to not have any paperwork to do.

How are you managing the fast growth?

It was surprisingly busy during the spring and summer and has slowed in the winter months. I’ve been doing the work on my own but I am going to advertise for a veterinarian to work with me. I think of it as a permanent job, but it’s up to them – if they want to come here for six months every year and work, that would be great too. It’s far more important to have the right person than to be set in stone regarding working hours and scheduling. It’s possible that there will be room for a veterinary nurse at some point.

Who are you looking for?

The right veterinarian isn’t often what you see on paper. Their technical skills need to be super good, of course, but they also need to have really great communication skills. I want someone who really enjoys being in Central Otago. I want them to understand that I want them to have long weekends off, and I want them to be able to go away and enjoy their life. I’ll treat them with respect and give them what they need. They need to understand that professionalism is really important in this business, and that’s where we get repeat business and clients. I don’t want someone who says things that aren’t 100% correct; I’d rather they say, “I don’t know, but we’ll find out”. I’d like to find another veterinarian who cares as much as I do about the industry and the profession. I’d love to see two of us working in a really happy team, enjoying working together and bouncing ideas off each other. I don’t mind if we don’t grow to be a massive business. Having a small, accurate, professionally good business is what I want.