Unique program at UF hones veterinary students business acumen

Two students measure a treatment room at a private veterinary practice.

Two students participating in the veterinary practice management clerkship as part of UF’s Veterinary Business Management Certificate program measure a treatment room at a private practice. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Martha Mallicote)

By Sarah Carey

A unique program offered at the UF College of Veterinary Medicine aims to develop its students’ business-related skills from contract negotiations to debt management as practice owners.

“Ours is the only college of veterinary medicine in the country that offers an academically credentialed business management certificate program,” said Dr. Martha Mallicote, the program’s director and a clinical assistant professor at the college.

Started in 2013, the UF Veterinary Business Management Certificate program is an offshoot of a business management course begun by Dana Zimmel, D.V.M., the associate dean for clinical services and chief medical officer for the UF Veterinary Hospitals. As of 2018, 109 students had earned a certificate and 38 veterinary practices had been evaluated through the practice management clerkship, a distinctive piece of the program.

Students must perform 10 hours of elective coursework, or six courses. This includes the clerkship, in which students provide the owner with a financial, fee and compliance analysis, along with feedback on inventory management and a strategic marketing assessment. They produce a report summarizing their findings and suggest improvements.

“Student evaluations are very positive,” Mallicote said. “We also get good feedback about them finding employment, as well as from employers who have found value in the program. The practices we have worked with are overwhelmingly shocked, in a pleasant way, by the work that we are doing.”

Mallicote said the program’s emphasis on the business side of being a veterinarian can’t be overstated. “You’ll make more money as an owner than you ever will as an associate,’’ she said. “That messaging, to me, has been a big part of this program from the start.”

That philosophy has found its way into the curriculum, she said.

“I make that argument to every one of our junior and senior students, that the way to go is practice ownership,” she added. “These are the graduates who are going to buy a practice in five years.”

Mallicote offered the example of a practice with a gross annual revenue of $2 million and a profit of $350,000.

“If you finance over 10 years, the profit pays the loan down,” she said. “But you are getting the loan on the value of that practice. The fact that you don’t have $500,000 to put down is not a problem, because you have the practice as collateral. So, a well-run practice buys itself.”

The same holds true of buying into a practice; the small amounts new associates purchase to have a “piece of the business” are basically paid for by the profit generated by the business, Mallicote said.

Dr. Chris Ziegler, a 2015 graduate of the college who works for Town & Country Veterinarians and Pet Resort in Gainesville, said the program equipped him well for private practice.

“Throughout our education, we get the sense that our job as veterinarians is to practice medicine at the ‘ivory tower’ standard, and to a great extent, that is true,’’ Ziegler said. “What we don’t always learn is that there is a side of veterinary medicine — cost — that we aren’t truly introduced to until we graduate.”

Ziegler said he was referring not just to the cost of veterinary services to the client but to the veterinary hospital providing services to that client.

“Private practice is a business, there’s no way around that,” he said. “Money dictates not just what treatments our clients can afford, but what treatments and equipment our practice can afford to offer. Making a practice profitable is not a selfish endeavor, because reinvesting that money allows us to perform more up-to-date medicine.”

For example, knowing how to do a cost/benefit analysis could help determine whether a practice owner can afford to purchase a new piece of equipment such as an ultrasound machine, he said.

Dr. Alexis Muniz, a 2017 graduate, received her business certificate and now practices at Keystone Heights Animal Hospital. She feels she can better serve her clients and the company she works for because of what she learned in the program.

“I can’t stress enough how crucial it is for young veterinarians to know what I takes to run a practice,” she said. “Even for those with no interest in ever owning one, knowing how and where practices survive is of outmost importance even when trying to be a good employee, let alone an owner.”

The program’s emphasis on core values, and on finding compatibility with the practice you choose to work for, stood out for Muniz.

“One of the first lessons with the business certificate isn’t showing you what everything costs, or how much money you should make. It’s a lesson in core values, and I think that speaks volumes to what this certificate is about,” she said.

Heidi Tomlin works as manager of Ziegler’s employer, Town & Country Veterinarians, which she co-owns with her husband, Dr. Terry Tomlin. Their practice participated in the UF business certificate program a few years ago.

“It’s always nice to get an outside view of how others think you are doing,” she said. “The students put together a nice little book. Each student took a turn at presenting their findings and made suggestions as to what they felt we might be able to make some improvement in.”

She said the group had one suggestion related to how the practice could monitor patients’ recuperation from surgery even more closely than they already did.

“We put their suggestion into practice right away and still use the process they suggested today,” Tomlin said.

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