Fourteen University of Florida veterinary students have spent part of the summer analyzing financial reports, observing staff-client interactions in private veterinary hospitals and learning more about practice management as part of a new hands-on externship aimed at sharpening students’ business skills.

Those who have participated so far, including practice owners, say the experience has been extremely positive and has benefited all involved.

The externship, which unfolded in separate two-week rotations this summer, is the capstone of a new business certificate program now being offered at the UF College of Veterinary Medicine. To receive the certificate, students must meet rigorous criteria demonstrating an overall awareness and knowledge of practice management.

Students are paired with area practitioners in a “real-world” experience that allows them to enhance their business skills and overall practice savvy as they prepare to enter the workplace.

The students concentrate on one practice each week, and begin by meeting with the practice owner to discuss key areas the owners have expressed interest in receiving feedback on – areas such as financial/revenue analysis, fee review, or observations of staff/ client interaction. The students then observe the practice for two days, return to the classroom to process what they’ve seen, and prepare an evaluation to present to the practitioner on the final day.

“It’s really a win-win, which is the best thing about it,” said Jeff Sanford, director of entrepreneurship studies at the UGA Small Business Development Center and founder of the original program at UGA, which UF’s program is modeled after.

Sanford visited UF for two weeks in June to teach the first externship enrollees and to train Dr. Martha Mallicote, who coordinates the externship course and has a degree in economics, and John Haven, college director and a certified public accountant, so they can continue to teach the course in the future.

No other veterinary colleges in the country offer such a cohesive, comprehensive business externship to students, Sanford said.

“Some have components, like sending students out to speak with an accountant or a banker,” Sanford said. “But only UGA and UF have an integrated program such as we have, with the concentrated involvement of both students and practitioners.”

The students benefit in two key ways, Stanford said.

“They learn more about what to ask about a practice when they’re interviewing for a job, and they learn about what’s involved in running a successful practice once they’re in that job,” Sanford said.

Dr. Doug Lammers, owner of Companion Animal Clinic of Ocala, worked with the first group of student externs from June 24-28.

“Sometimes as a practitioner, you tend to get exam room tunnel vision,” Lammers said. “Things seem to be going along well, growth is good and staff and clients are happy. What the students did was give us a set of unbiased eyes, under the tutelage of someone who had done a number of evaluations, and they pointed out a number of areas where our flow was less than optimal.”

He said his clinic’s objective is to “get clients in, service their pets in the best way possible and get them out the door with an experience which makes them want to return in the future.”

“After the in-clinic observations were made, we met with the entire group and they made their presentations,” Lammers said. “They supplied us with a bound compilation of everything they had presented, and the meeting took more than three hours. Topics were covered in detail and it became clear that there were many areas we could improve in our effectiveness.”

Lammers’ clinic already has made some procedural changes. He also is taking a hard look at going paperless, changing his fee structure, capturing fees for services not being charged for presently and adding a phone tree to answer calls that can’t be answered within three rings.

“We have a very busy practice with 18 total employees who are all dedicated to client service, and we have a practice that has many positives,” Lammers said. “But we were shown many areas where we could improve our client experience while making it easier for our staff to be successful.”

The second practitioner involved in the first summer externship, Dr. Frances Ramirez, owns Country Oaks Veterinary Clinic in Ocala.

“It was very nice to have someone else look at your practice and offer positive feedback,” she said. “They followed the pets and helped us notice what their clients notice with their pets. They provided a very comprehensive and written evaluation of what they observed, calculated and researched.”

Ramirez, a 2001 graduate of the UFCVM, said nothing like this program was available when she was a student.

“I am very happy that this is being offered,” she said. “Managing a practice is not an easy task. It’s good to be open-minded and look at every aspect.”

She said was grateful to the students for their hard work and positive criticism.

“I wish them the best of luck,” Ramirez said.

Veterinary student Amanda Ditson, a senior, said she had not had many classes up until now that had really explored business.

“This rotation allowed me to learn better with a hands-on experience,” Ditson said. “I loved that we were able to go into real practices and evaluate them. It’s easier to understand numbers and statistics when you have an applicable situation.”

Senior student Sandy Scarpinato signed up for this externship because she felt it would give her a glimpse of what practice ownership is like.

“This rotation should be considered essential to anyone planning on owning a veterinary clinic,” she said.

Two takeaways senior student Jon Williams gleaned were “understanding how much I should be getting paid as an associate veterinarian, that time is truly money and that one needs to be efficient with time management to truly maximize their earning potential as well as to manage a well-orchestrated clinic.”

Mallicote and Haven taught the second group of externs, along with Matt Lastinger, an associate of Sanford’s. Mallicote said that without her background of having an undergraduate economics degree and working in the business world before veterinary school, she never would have felt comfortable with things like interpreting financial statements.

“Despite the fact that most veterinarians also become small business owners at some point in their career, we as a profession are doing very little to train students for that responsibility,” Mallicote said. “The certificate program and business courses that have been added to the UF curriculum over the last few years go far towards correcting that deficiency. “

The certificate program and externship both were created by Dr. Dana Zimmel, chief of staff of the UF Veterinary Hospitals and advisor to the Veterinary Business Management Association student club. Zimmel said she knew how successful the program had been at Georgia and believed it would be a useful tool, not only for educating students, but also for building relationships with practitioners.

“This training will give students an advantage when searching for their first position, because they have an understanding of the challenges that practice owners face when operating a hospital,” Zimmel said. “Students will graduate with confidence and knowledge that within a few years they can be successful practice owners.”