Disaster Happens, But is Your Clinic Prepared?
When you hear the term ‘natural disaster’ what comes to mind? A storm like hurricane Katrina? The wildfires in California? An Indonesian tsunami? All of these are devastating natural disasters that have occurred in the past and will likely happen in the future, but a disaster does not have to be of such epic proportions to affect you and your business. Severe thunderstorms cause power outages and flooding, blizzards create frozen pipes and down power lines, and everyday car accidents cause road closures preventing access to your clinic. It is imperative the topic of disaster preparedness is discussed with your clients to keep everyone aware and on the same page.
Acknowledge the reality
What type of disaster is most likely to affect your place of business? No matter which part of the country you are practicing in, there are threats to your business. If you live near the coast you are likely at risk for flooding with severe thunderstorms and hurricanes. Northern states must prepare for blizzards, frozen pipes, and loss of power. Every veterinary practice has the potential to be affected by building fires and road closures preventing your staff and clients from having direct and easy access to your place of business. Once you evaluate the risks to your business, take time talk with your associates and staff members. Your team should understand the importance of an emergency plan because it not only affects their place of employment but the animals they care for and their lives. Having your team on the same page will make communication to your clients easier.
Formulate a plan
The next step is to formulate a plan for potential disasters. This is a complex undertaking and as such there are several resources available to veterinarians and staff, through the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) and Veterinary Information Network (VIN), to assist in putting together a thorough disaster plan for your hospital, clinic, or mobile practice. The most important part of any plan is communication: both within your team and from your team to your clients. Having a phone tree system in place in the event a disaster happens in the off hours will allow communication amongst all team members. When cell towers are overwhelmed (as happens during an emergent situation) use SMS text as a way to communicate rather than phone calls. Texting uses very tiny bits of data, compared to larger data needed for voice communication, which prevents the cell towers from being overwhelmed. Texts also have the ability to wait in queue compared to phone calls that may get cut off consistently. Your veterinary clinic’s social media and website are places people will seek out information regarding your business. You can update clients, letting them know if you are open or closed and if you have changed locations to a temporary off-site clinic. Having a designated off-site location for all staff members to gather in the event of a building evacuation is part of a successful disaster preparedness plan as well as practicing evacuations with both staff and animals. Putting together a disaster preparedness plan for your veterinary hospital is a huge undertaking, but it is important for the survival of your staff, patients, and your business.
Educate your clients
As I am sure you have experienced with your clients, convincing a pet owner to prevent disease is often more challenging than encouraging them to treat a sick animal. A pet owner does not apply flea prevention each month, but when their cat is covered in fleas, they expect us to eliminate the infestation immediately. When people witness illness or pain in their pets, they want us to fix them, but explaining the ability to prevent illness with vaccination or parasite prevention does not always have the same outcome. Disaster preparedness is similar. Many of us, and our clients, do not believe a hurricane will rip through our town or that our home or place of business will catch fire. The reality is the risk is always there, and we must prepare for it. Having a staff that understands the risks and the importance of preparation will ensure you have clients who comply.
Use annual well visits, puppy and kitten exams, and microchip appointments to discuss disaster preparedness. Annual well visits are a good time to discuss vaccinations and parasite preventions. Encourage clients to consider non-core vaccines like leptospirosis and Lyme which may not be a risk to their pet now, but could affect their pet in the event they need to relocate. Talk with clients about purchasing a six- or 12-month supply of parasite prevention as they often save money buying several doses at a time. If pets are on chronic medications, explain to owners the importance of keeping several months’ supply at all times. Consider the COVID-19 pandemic and how several pet owners had to reach out to friends and other family members to care for their pets either due to being sick or having to leave the home and become hospitalized due to contracting the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Having a supply of prevention and other medications is beneficial in life-altering circumstances.
Puppy and kitten visits are loaded with education to pet owners and we certainly do not want to overwhelm our clients so consider putting together a handout to give to your pet owners outlining what they need to do in an emergency. The handout can also be translated to a graphic and posted on your website and social media platforms. Talking to clients about microchipping their pet is a great way to open the discussion about disaster preparedness as there have been many situations where pets become separated from their owners. Explain to owners the importance of keeping their contact information up to date with their pet’s microchip.
None of us want to endure an emergency or a natural disaster. We do not want to shut down our business and evacuate, but it is out of our control. Take time to assess the risks to your business and formulate a disaster preparedness plan. Openly communicate to your staff members and allow the conversation to flow into the exam room with pet owners. Preparing your business, staff, and clients will result in the best possible outcome for all.
About the author
Dr. Leigh Hofmeister is the creator and author of the blog My Vet + Me, at www.myvetandme.com, and she speaks frequently about pet health issues. She was born in Atlanta, Georgia, and graduated from Clemson University (BS, Animal Sciences) and the Ross University School of Veterinary Medicine. She completed her clinical studies at Oklahoma State University and has been working in small animal private practice since.
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