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UGA’s veterinary practice management externship having an influence beyond Georgia

The University of Florida and University of Georgia are bitter rivals on the field of play, but when it comes to their colleges of veterinary medicine, they share a common goal: produce great doctors with strong business skills. So, when UF began designing a business certificate program to prepare veterinary students for the rigors of practice ownership, it looked to UGA’s veterinary practice management externship program as a template.

UGA’s practice management externship program, a collaboration between the Small Business Development Center (SBDC) and the College of Veterinary Medicine, is the brainchild of Jeff Sanford, SBDC’s director of entrepreneurial studies. The program is designed to give veterinary students the skills needed to be successful business owners and to be a bridge of engagement between SBDC and veterinary practice owners throughout Georgia. SBDC also collaborates with the College of Pharmacy to run a pharmacy management externship program.

“UGA is producing top-notch veterinarians and pharmacists,” Sanford said. “SBDC wants to help them become successful small business owners while at the same time assisting current clinic and pharmacy owners.”

When Dr. Dana Zimmel, UF veterinary hospitals chief of staff and associate clinical professor, began developing UF’s business certificate program, she contacted Sanford and UGA College of Veterinary Medicine Dean Sheila Allen to inquire about UGA’s practice management rotation. Together they arranged for UF veterinary students to fill two empty externship spots.

“Jeff is a member of the business education team that the University of Florida has been bringing in for the past several years, so I knew about the work he is doing at UGA,” Zimmel said. “I am not aware of anybody else who is taking students into private practices and having them do a business analysis and write up a report. I think it’s a great opportunity for students, and I am very grateful that Dean Allen and Jeff would allow our students to share a part of the externship program.”

During a recent practice management externship, the cohort of UGA veterinary students was joined by Kaleigh McVety, a fourth-year veterinary student at UF. McVety was tasked with a sort of reconnaissance mission: participate in UGA’s practice management rotation and report back to Gainesville about whether the program has value. McVety was chosen for the job because of her interest in the business side of veterinary medicine. She is co-president of the UF chapter of the Veterinary Business Management Association (VBMA), and she knows beyond a shadow of a doubt that she wants to someday be a practice owner.

“At the University of Florida, we’re taught how to practice really good medicine, but we want to produce veterinarians who are business savvy and will be great practice owners,” McVety said.

During the typical practice management externship, students spend three days in each veterinary clinic interviewing practice owners, associates and staff; observing workflow; doing cost-benefit analyses; assessing marketing efforts; and poring over financial and patient records. The students then spend several days analyzing the data and compiling a detailed report that they then present to the practice owners. Each analysis can take up to 80 hours to complete. When it’s finished, the students have learned the ins and outs of practice ownership, and the clinic owner has received a detailed report on the health of his or her business. Sanford estimates that an analysis performed by an accounting firm or efficiency expert would cost $3,000 to $5,000. During the rotation that McVety participated in, the students analyzed practices in Americus and Acworth.

“It was great to get to dissect two very different types of clinics,” McVety said. “I got to see a sole practitioner practice in a rural area in Americus, and I got to see a multiple owner practice in the Atlanta suburbs with three locations and a huge operation.”

Zimmel plans to install the UGA-style externship as part of UF’s veterinary business certificate program. UF currently has certificate programs in aquatic animal health and food animal medicine. Zimmel feels strongly that those certificate programs have helped students find jobs after graduation, and she is confident that a veterinary business certificate program will do the same. She estimates that 20 to 30 percent of UF students want to be practice owners some day. She wants to have the business certificate curriculum in place by January 2013.

“We choose people to go to vet school based on their ability as scientists, so many of our students don’t necessarily have strong business skills or business experience. A practice business certificate program and practice management rotation will help those students who love science but also want to own their own practice,” Zimmel said.

McVety credits UGA’s veterinary practice management externship with increasing her confidence to start her own practice when she graduates in 2013.

“The UGA rotation has been great,” McVety said. “We’ve basically dissected every aspect of how a clinic works. Workflow, inventory, staffing, overhead. Initially I thought it would be five years or more after graduation before I opened my own clinic. After what I’ve learned and observed during the UGA externship, I think I can open my own clinic within one or two years. I’m going to tell Dr. Zimmel and the VBMA chapter back at UF that we need to have a rotation like this. In fact, I think every vet school needs to have something like this.”

About SBDC
A Public Service and Outreach unit at the University of Georgia, the Small Business Development Center provides a wide range of educational opportunities and services to small business owners, potential entrepreneurs and community leadership organizations, which support efforts to create, sustain or expand business ventures throughout Georgia.

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