VetScript Editor’s pick – February 2018

Confronted by consistent examples of avoidable diseases and other conditions among lifestyle block animals, veterinarian Laura Schwerdtfeger developed a prevention-based strategy that is going down a storm with lifestylers. Bette Flagler reports.

When veterinarian Laura Schwerdtfeger began answering calls from lifestyle block owners, she noticed the same problems occurring over and over.

“I saw 10 sheep in a row, all on different properties, all with barber’s pole (Haemonchus contortus). It was pretty awful, and the sheep were often at death’s door. I realised that we had a bit of an issue, and wondered how people didn’t know that this worm is a problem and that they needed to give the sheep a drench to prevent it.

“It became obvious to me that there was a lack of education in the lifestyle community about what animals need in order to prevent common diseases.”

Laura, who works at Franklin Vets’ Taupiri, Te Kauwhata, Papakura and Pukekohe clinics, came up with the idea of organising preventive healthcare packages for lifestyle clients. When she approached Managing Director Mark Hosking, he suggested that she return with a business plan. She worked on it for a few months, and got the green light.

“It is fantastic to see the more recent graduates coming up with ideas,” says Mark. “All of our team are encouraged to bring new initiatives or ideas to the table, and they are usually given the opportunity to try them out.”

While Laura is doing the initial rounds of visits herself to ensure that everything goes smoothly, the Lifestyle Block Annual Healthcare Packages are designed to be run by veterinary technicians.

“We want the veterinarians available to attend to ambulatory calls and those sick animals who really need veterinary intervention,” she says. “These packages are designed so that everything offered can be carried out by a technician. The goal is to prevent disease and, consequently, the technicians shouldn’t need any antibiotics or other medications.”

Packages have been developed for sheep, goats and alpaca, and the frequency of visits depends on species and age. Packages for alpaca, for example, include five visits per year to ensure that the animals get sufficient vitamin D. Adult sheep get four visits per year, and lambs six. Costs are determined based on numbers and types of animals. The annual cost for visiting a property with four sheep, for example, will be different from that for attending one that has two sheep, one goat and three alpaca.

Launched in November, the programme was rolled out to lifestyle block clients whom Laura had visited for what she deemed were preventable problems. The clinic also promoted the service through its monthly lifestyle newsletter, in a local rural living magazine and by speaking directly with clients who visited the clinic.

By the end of the first month all available spaces were booked.

“Obviously there are things you can’t prevent – injuries and pneumonia, for example – but a lot of the diseases that we see are preventable. Just about everyone I spoke to was interested. The response has been bigger than I expected, which has made managing it a bit tricky.

“I’m a full-time veterinarian and already have a full caseload, so adding this has been a bit of a balancing act. Luckily, everyone here is really supportive and is stepping up and helping to get this thing to work. The other veterinarians and technicians can help do the runs if I’m busy with my other work, and the directors recognise that this programme needs a lot of administration and have put aside hours for me to do that.”

Clients who had sick animals were the first to be targeted, and approximately 80% took up the offer. Because it is designed to be a technician-based service, the cost is kept affordable – it certainly represents a saving when compared with getting a veterinarian out to treat a sick animal.

“But to be honest,” says Laura, “it’s not a service where we make a large amount of money. I talked to Mark about this, and asked if he thought it would take money away from the business because we’re not using the ambulance service, we’re using it for prevention. He said that could be the case, but if we can provide a service that lifestyle clients need to keep their animals from becoming diseased, then that’s more important than the ambulance service. I think that’s a really good attitude to have.”

Make no mistake, the programme needs to pay its own way, says Mark.

“Our whole business is moving towards a more proactive, preventive approach to animal health and our lifestyle clients should be no different.”

Mark explains that the goal is to spend more time on farm and less time driving by using runs, along with technicians where appropriate. “We are at the stage of having a go and learning through the process. No doubt the charging model will change, but I’m comfortable with it not having to make money from day one. Long term it has to stack up, and it has to add value to our clients.”

Positive spinoffs are expected from the programme, most notably strong relationships with lifestyle block clients.

One of the benefits, says Laura, is that over the course of the regular visits, clients will get to know the veterinarians and technicians and become more comfortable asking questions and taking advice.

“A lot of times we go to a property once for a really bad problem and then we don’t see the client or animals again. This way we visit four to six times a year and are able to strengthen the relationship. If something does go wrong and there is an illness, we hope the client is more comfortable talking to us and asking questions. It’s about building stronger relationships.”

She admits that not all clinics choose to go down the lifestyle route, and that the niche comes with its own set of challenges.

“Lifestylers are a whole other ball game. Some people have animals as lawnmowers, but don’t even know their animals need water. They don’t have appropriate equipment or facilities, and many lack knowledge about basic animal husbandry.

“Being a lifestyle veterinarian includes a huge responsibility to put an educational focus on your visits, spending a good half hour talking to the clients and explaining what the diseases are and how we can prevent them.

“To be successful, this kind of programme will need veterinarians and technicians who have an interest in client education. This is why these runs are so important. Yes, we’re going to do all the treatments to prevent disease, but educating the clients and having technicians and veterinarians to talk to the clients is going to be a big part of it.”

It’s early days, but already the signs are pointing to it being popular.

“Even in the first two weeks we realised that there is enough demand to warrant employing additional technicians. We will also purchase some really good equipment, like sheep crushes, that will help us with the process and keep it safer from a health and safety perspective.”

The plan is to offer the programme to all the Franklin Vets branches, but it is currently only available through the Papakura, Pukekohe, Waiuku and Beachlands clinics. Once it’s bedded in and running smoothly, Laura will train receptionists, veterinary technicians and support staff at other branches.

Rolling out the Lifestyle Block Annual Healthcare Packages has been successful so far, but setting it up wasn’t necessarily easy, says Laura, who graduated from Massey University in 2014.

She admits that coming from a science background and trying to do something business oriented was a challenge, and that while researching what services would be best to offer was straightforward, studying and understanding what made a robust business plan was a bit tougher.

The intricacies of how best to deliver the programme also required effort. “It was quite a big process to find the right shearers to partner with,” she says.

“We needed to find people who were professional and who would be gentle with the animals and understand that, in many cases, the animals are pets.

“We conducted interviews and evaluated their equipment. Right now, we have three sheep shearers and two alpaca shearers we work with, and we schedule them to do the runs on the same days that we do ours.”

Being a lifestyle veterinarian wasn’t what Laura thought she’d do when she graduated. She spent her first two years in dairy practice at Franklin Vets’ Taupiri clinic, but realised that she wanted to also do small animal and lifestyle block clients. She’s grateful that the organisation found a place in the business that suited her interests.

“Franklin Vets has been an incredibly nurturing company to work for as a new graduate. There’s really good graduate support, and if you have a dream or a passion, the directors will sit down and see if they can make that happen. They’ve helped me grow into the company, and everyone is really supportive.”

Mark says Laura stands out in the way she has developed this idea from concept to being operational.

“She is working well beyond where I would expect someone to be at her stage of career.

“There is a huge amount of learning and experience to be gained by a young veterinarian going through a process like this and I think it’s important to back them and give them space to develop their ideas.”

Laura is grateful for the opportunity and says that developing and rolling out the lifestyle packages has been hugely rewarding. She advises others going down a similar track to be in it for the long haul.

“There’s a niche out there for this kind of service. I think that in order for it to be a success, you need a veterinarian or technician who is really passionate about it, because once it’s started, it is an ongoing service.”