Specialty care saves animal hospitals

Amy Olson

Ten years ago, tight funding at the University’s Veterinary Teaching Hospitals almost closed their doors.
But instead of closing, hospital officials decided to make up for lost state funding by becoming service-oriented — providing specialty care while teaching students at the same time.
Performing treatments like chemotherapy and hip replacements have kept the hospitals solvent, doubling the patient load and increasing revenue by 200 percent over the last decade.
In 1987, 80 percent of the veterinary hospitals’ budget was state-funded; over the last decade, it dropped to just 15 percent. Ed Kosciolek, the teaching hospitals’ administrator, said the increased patient load and fee-for-service care offset the hospitals’ loss of state funding.
The Twin Cities had many general veterinary practitioners before the hospitals’ transformation, but few specialists, said hospital director Donald Plumb. He said the teaching hospitals’ officials decided to provide special care before private practitioners filled the demand.
Plumb said the hospitals hired full-time veterinary clinicians in addition to tenure-track professors to meet the growing demand. In 1987, the veterinary hospitals treated 14,000 patients; by the end of 1997, that number grew to 25,000.
Kosciolek said he expects the 50 veterinarians working for the hospitals will treat 28,000 patients in 1998. The teaching hospitals treat both large farm animals and smaller domesticated animals.
Stephen Bistner, a professor in the small animal clinics and a veterinary ophthalmologist, said the teaching hospital depends on fee-for-service care to support the cost of teaching veterinary students.
Most pet owners bring their animals to the teaching hospitals for specialty care after being referred by general veterinarians.
While the teaching hospitals’ missions have changed, Kosciolek said the hospitals still provide learning opportunities for veterinary students in clinical rotations. Plumb said the hospitals provide better learning opportunities for veterinary students under the specialty care model.
Balancing the hospitals’ mission of teaching and providing service is a challenge, Plumb said.
“Change is tough in any institution this size,” Plumb said. “So far, it’s working pretty well.”