Hanging with Hafen: Could concierge service work in your veterinary hospital?

Hanging with Hafen: Could concierge service work in your veterinary hospital?

If you're willing to try something new to bond with your clients and provide more personal service to your patients, concierge care could be the answer.
Aug 02, 2011

I recently read in Bloomburg Businessweek about a new concept in the human healthcare field called “concierge healthcare.” Looking at a website for one of the leaders in this field, the Qliance Medical Group, I was struck by the group’s verbiage: Concierge care “is like a health club membership, but for healthcare,” the site read. What an idea!

Here’s what one healthcare user told Bloomburg: “What I’ve been disenchanted with in the medical field is that over the years it has evolved into 10 minute bits of medical advice.” It seems the modern human healthcare consumer is tired of being just a very tiny cog in a healthcare machine that seems to eat up both patients and doctors. Thankfully, I don’t think veterinary medicine has reached that point, but maybe we can still learn something from the human healthcare world.

There are two levels of human health concierge care. I call them “full retainer” and “membership.”

According to MD2, a provider of high-end concierge healthcare, “Your physician is retained in advanced, and [he or she] limits the practice to a select few families.” So instead of having literally thousands of patients, in the full retainer concierge service, each doctor has only a few hundred patients that he or she cares for. Now, this may not be feasible for the general veterinary market, but in large, affluent markets like New York City’s Upper East Side or California’s Beverly Hills, it could work. My understanding is that in the human healthcare market, a typical full retainer averages $15,000 a year. Maybe in these markets a full retainer service offered by a veterinarian could be $5,000 a year. For those who say this couldn’t possibly happen in the veterinary world, I counter that there are already equine veterinarians that are retained by breeding farms or racetracks on a continuing basis.

A more workable alternative for the veterinary world might be the membership model. In fact, there are a few private veterinary hospital, and I can think of one corporate hospital that offers new pet or wellness care programs. But these programs have fallen flat by not setting the bar high enough. Often these programs are seen as a de facto insurance or assurance program that covers the “what ifs” of owning and caring for a pet. In contrast, a more effective approach may be to market these programs as a higher level of service that is available to premium clients for a membership fee. A veterinary membership concierge care program similar to human healthcare could include 24-hour care and/or 24-hour access to a veterinarian, twice yearly patient “physicals,” all routine vaccinations, imaging and diagnostic tests, priority booking for appointments, and even having your “personal” veterinarian assist in monitoring your pet’s treatment when referred to a specialist for non-routine care.

So how could offering concierge care could affect the design of your facility? To start, you’ll need a concierge desk. The biggest issue for patients and families in human healthcare is that they feel lost or powerless, not knowing who to talk to or how to access the system. In your typical small to midsize general veterinary practice, a well-trained receptionist can often provide your clients with the hands-on personal service they need. In larger facilities where specialized team members answer incoming calls at a phone bank, the receptionist should ideally be trained to provide this same level of care and service. But these large practices might also benefit from designating someone as the concierge. The concierge could sit at a desk to one side of the reception desk and provide a visible and accessible resource that clients can tap into. A client could talk to the concierge to expedite a pet pickup, to have a procedure explained, to schedule an appointment, or to talk to a doctor. In fact, this isn’t an entirely new service, but a matter of making your existing service more accessible.

On the other side of the coin, the typical human healthcare concierge care is more exclusive, and requires clients to essentially buy service or access. These pay-for-the-privilege concierge services could manifest themselves in veterinary medicine in the following ways:

Two levels of care
Within your practice you could create two levels of care. Along with priority access to your veterinarian and having routine procedures covered by your membership, concierge care could include valet parking, express drop off or pickup, a private club waiting area , or even a more exclusive hospital or exam rooms. Most of this is just a variation on things many practices do already, like the client service bar or the separate oncology waiting area. But you could take these ideas further.

What about literally offering a separate, upgraded waiting room for premium “red carpet” members or a separate and exclusive exam room? Some practices offer separate cat and dog waiting areas, and other facilities include a separate cat medical area within the larger medical areas. Using this same approach, you could build a premium clinic within your standard hospital.

Members-only hospitals
Through the way you price and market your services, you can effectively create a premium-grade practice that is only lacking an actual “membership” card. Your practice could be “high cost, high touch, high service.” The clients who do not value or cannot afford this higher level of service will go down the street to your lower-priced competition. Meanwhile, the premium clients stay with you. To some degree, most of you do this already, but what if you pushed it a little farther. What would happen if you pushed your fees and marketed your services so that only the wealthy and needy clients remained? The question would then become: How big of a population base would you need if you if you were only providing service to the top 10 percent of the market, and could you effectively market yourself to them.

And what would your physical facility look like to be consistent with the market segment you selected? Instead of having a bunch of exam rooms, would it make more sense to limit your facility to only two nice, oversized exam rooms? What would a premium, upscale waiting area look like? How could you provide all the necessary diagnostic and imaging capacity of a larger facility in a much smaller, low-volume facility?

Members-only wellness care programs
If you have an existing wellness program, how can you reposition it to make it a premium program that provides enhanced access, better service, and more comprehensive medical care? Instead of your wellness program being an insurance program that provides a minimum level of care, could it instead be a perception of enhanced value? In this case, a members-only wellness care program may have only minimal impact on your facility. Instead, it may simply require increased and effective staffing. Such a program may require that you bring on additional team members, including both doctors and technicians, so you can provide more personal and immediate care for wellness members. In this case, the quality of your facility may not change, but you may need additional capacity in terms of a separate exam room, treatment area, or even additional doctors’ offices and technician workstations.

A concierge services brings accessibility and the perception of value to the client experience. On the most basic level, you want your clients to feel like they’re being heard and getting better service. But let me close with a couple of pieces of information about the economics of client interaction. According to the folks at Qliance, “Qliance patients make fewer trips to hospitals and specialists because of the more attentive primary care and incur 22 percent fewer medical costs annually than average.” This proves that providing better, more accessible, and more personal medical care helps you keep clients, makes for healthier patients, and saves clients money. And if you can align the level of care you provide with your fees, you could make more money too. How could things be any better?