By Crissey Tait
Dr. M. Duffy Jones, DVM completed his Bachelor of Science degree in biology at the University of Notre Dame and obtained his Doctorate in Veterinary Medicine at Tufts School of Veterinary Medicine. He then completed an internship at Georgia Veterinary Specialist in 2000. In 2005, he founded Peachtree Hills Animal Hospital located in Atlanta, Georgia. He is the co-author of The Business Side of Veterinary Medicine: What Veterinary Schools Do Not Teach You, published in 2017.
What prompted you to write this book?
I think the biggest thing was that most veterinarians get in the business to see pets and treat patients, and we get very little education on how to actually run the business. So, this was a book that as some young veterinarians are thinking about owning or starting their own business or starting their careers, they could have different general information about the different parts of the career and the profession that they may have not thought about before.
How did you learn about the business side of veterinary medicine?
Really through the “School of Hard Knock” to be honest with you; just running my own business and making a lot of mistakes here and there and trying to figure it out on my own in that way. I would love to try to save people from some of the pain that I’ve been through in trying to learn the business.
Is your target audience mostly for students or does it span the whole career from student to retirement?
It spans the whole career, but it is really gauged for people that are just starting their career because it’s about what you want to do and how you want to do it. Anyone can use it, but it is typically people that are just looking to figure out where they want to be in this profession and what they want to do.
Does the book address the personal aspects of business, such as signing contracts?
Yeah, it goes into the whole gamut. It starts out with where you can go corporate or you can go private practice, and then we get into more specifics of contracts, setting up, getting lawyers, what you need to think about, those sort of things.
What are some topics in your book that will to apply to everyone, whether they work in private practice or for a corporate entity?
You know, I think the contract portion of it. You’re talking about what you are looking for in a contract and what your obligations are. We have to talk a lot about, as you are starting your career or in your career, what are you doing to plan for when you are not practicing anymore? Are you investing? Are you thinking about a 401K? Are you thinking about what you are going to do after this career, and are you setting yourself up to have a great career and manage the stress that occurs during this career?
That’s interesting that you mention stress. So how do you recommend managing that stress?
Everyone does it differently and really you have to talk about what works for you. What works for different people isn’t always the same, so you have to first acknowledge that this is a stressful job. There’s a lot of pressure. There’s a lot of emotion, and it’s okay to have that. You just have to figure out how to manage that, and if you don’t manage that it can really come back and be a big problem later. So, you have to find ways to kind of separate yourself from work.
That’s some good advice. Would you say that the lack of knowledge of the business side contributes more to stress than the actual medicine?
A ton of stress is because all of a sudden you’re worrying about how to pay your bills and how to [manage a business]. You’re putting so much effort and time into being a good doctor and being available, but you’ve got to be able to pay your bills, pay your staff, and pay yourself. I think that does contribute to a significant portion of stress in that way. Sometimes what happens is that people get into it and start a business or buy a business, and they don’t really understand how much stress that is really going to be for them.
How has knowing about good business practices affected both your practice and your personal life?
It’s really helped me, and I have been very fortunate to have really good advisors along the way of people who run small businesses. I’ve been able to bounce ideas off of them. I think it has made a huge impact in our ability to provide the kind of service that we want to provide and to be able to grow and to provide the services to our clients that way too. From the personal side, it has been really beneficial because I am a little more comfortable in the things that I have to do to keep the business running and to keep my employees happy and take care of them—to be able to pay them and do the things that we need to do.
What would you say is the most challenging time in a veterinarian’s career regarding making business decisions?
I think they’re all challenging in different phases of your career from the beginning choosing what you want to do to mid-career when you’re working hard, running your business, and learning how to balance your patients, keeping the business going and managing employees, HR problems, and payroll. Also, honestly, when you retire do you have enough? You have to be very flexible to be able to work through those and you need different skill sets in each phase. When you get to retirement you need to understand, what are my tax implications and how do I reinvest that money? You have to be very savvy and forward-thinking and know a lot about financial planning. When in your earlier career you’re more interested in contracts, protecting yourself, getting going, and things like that. Then in the middle section you’re really focusing on learning how to run the business, how to run all the ins and outs – payroll, HR, employees, hiring and firing – those sorts of things. [The book] gives you ideas of things that you might have not thought about coming your way.
Could you expound more on how knowing the business side makes you a better doctor? Does it make you better at practicing medicine or just the managing part?
I think it makes you better… [Yo]u’re not going to be able to provide the kind of care you want to provide if you don’t have back office support and infrastructure. You can give of yourself, but if you don’t have the right staffing and right kind of things you’re not going to be able to fulfill the kind of medicine that you want to provide. So, [you’ve] got to be able to do that or that’s going to cause you a lot of stress more than anything else. We see a lot of burnout. For me, to be able to be a good vet I have to learn the business side of it. That’s where we see a lot of burnout. I think people try to ignore it or say, “I don’t really need to know that; the business part of it will take care of itself” or they’ll hire someone to do the business side because they don’t really want to do it. But they still have to know what’s going on… As one of my friends used to say, “You can delegate a lot of the running of the business, but you can’t abdicate the running of the business.” It’s very difficult to find someone that knows payroll, HR, the ins and outs of veterinarian medicine…If you’re strictly a business person looking at profits and loss it makes no sense what we do, but it’s because we are providing the care that we need to give in that situation. …[N]o one’s going to really care about your business more than you do. You really have to know that and say, “I have to learn some of this stuff”.
What recommendations would you make for schools to implement the business side into their curriculum?
I think it’s very hard because there is so much medical knowledge that they need to get across in four years, and we can’t make veterinary school five or six years to get the business side of it. So I think where it has been most effective is weaving it in and out of these classes at times. And also, what we found works too is having people out in practice coming to give talks at night to the students, giving them some lectures about starting business, contracts, and these sorts of things at night where they can come if they have time. Also, when they are in school and they are talking about medicine, it would be nice if these schools – while the (students) are on clinics or learning to do this – that the professors are talking about money with them as well and why we have to charge and other things like that. The hardest part in universities is that the professors don’t often know what the charges are. They’re so removed from the money part of it that it’s hard for them to give good advice. So, I think that’s why it’s important for really good practicing veterinarians to give a very different perspective to the students about why we have to do this.
What recommendations do you have for veterinary students to learn about business? Maybe their school isn’t bringing in practicing vets to talk about it. So obviously your book would be a great resource, but what other advice would you have for them?
I would tell them to talk to as many vets out there [as they can]. When you’re on clinics or even when you’re working in the university hospital, talk to the professors about the money aspect of it. Don’t be scared to talk to them about that. Then when you’re out doing externships or other places ask them about the business side of it. Most of them are happy to explain it… [Y]ou’ll see different styles. You’ll see there are a lot of different ways to do things, and no one way is the perfect way. So by asking and talking to different people along the way you’ll pick up what things are comfortable for you and maybe things that you’ll take forward to use in the future when you have a business. And you take things that you don’t want and don’t feel comfortable with and you’ll start to get and develop your own style.
What are some of the big overall takeaways about the business side of veterinary medicine?
I think the biggest one is that you have to deal with it. You can’t ignore it. It’s out there and you really have to work at it and understand what’s going on and keep your eyes open about where you are and where you want to be and kind of watching the overall landscape of what practices are doing. We’re in a big state of corporate consolidation of practices, so if you don’t want to be an owner you need to look at practices. If you don’t want to work corporate and you want to stay private, it may be harder as time goes as they’re consolidating. So you need to look at where the practice is and the age of the practice if you’re going to join it. Might be a consideration if they’re going to sell in the next 5 years.
A lot of medical practices seem to be having issues staying in private practice because of insurance, EMR, regulations, and other costs? Does that seem to be an issue in veterinary medicine?
Yeah, it’s getting harder and one of our big things is that we have a large percentage of baby boomer owners who started practices even twenty-five, forty years ago, and they are looking at their retirement. They may not have necessarily planned for retirement very well, and so they are looking to sell their practice as a major part of their retirement. And finding a student or an owner, someone who can come in and buy that practice, as opposed to what corporate is paying at this point is difficult. So we see a lot of this contraction more and more because of the multitude of what they’re paying. I think there is going to be some correction about that overtime, but it’s more not necessarily the regulatory things that are driving them out of practice, but these are people that are looking for an exit strategy and corporate is paying a lot.
If you had one piece of advice regarding business to give to anyone in the veterinary field what would it be?
I think to get good people around you. Get a good team of advisors around you. They don’t necessarily have to be veterinarians. Get a good lawyer, get a good accountant, get people you can trust who can help you along the way. You’re not going to know everything, and you need to rely on good quality people to help you. [You’ve] got to have people that you can call and say, “Hey, here’s what’s going on; what do I do?” When you get those good people around you, that makes things a lot easier. Choose your de-facto board of advisers or board of directors well.
So how have you gone about that in your life? How does someone find those good quality people?
Usually word of mouth. You start asking around, what other people are doing, who do you like, family members who have used different lawyers, and things like that. …[G]etting started with them early is really important, letting them get to know you and grow with you. I have been very fortunate to have my accountant, who is one of my most trusted advisers, who has been with me since the beginning. He’s known us as we tried to buy a practice in the beginning before we started this one. He knows our whole story; he knows the way I think. He knows that I am pretty conservative when it comes to money, and I don’t like debt. He helps me say, “Is this a good idea or bad idea?” Or a lot of times he says, “Don’t worry about it, you’ll be fine, relax” and things like that. He is very good and helps keep things in perspective.
Is there anything else that you would like to add or talk about?
I really wrote this book because, again, we all struggle in business. It’s hard. It’s difficult on a good day. And I think any little bit of advice that I can give to someone who is just coming up, and if they can avoid some of the mistakes that I have made, I consider that successful. I had a lot of help coming along the way… and I still talk to a lot of people to ask questions and get advice. This may hopefully start one’s journey or even help them midway in their career if they have neglected things that are coming their way. If I help someone along the way, I’ll be happy with it.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
About the Author
Crissey Tait holds a Master of Public Health with a Global Health specialization and is a Certified Health Education Specialist. She has worked in Rwanda and Haiti developing health programs and is an adjunct professor teaching environmental health and emergency management. She is a native Floridian who is passionate about travel, infectious disease, and swimming.