New program helps UF veterinary students, enhance business skills

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

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 demonstrate an overall awareness and knowledge of practice management.

The certificate program and externship were created by Dana Zimmel, D.V.M., chief of staff of the UF Veterinary Hospitals and adviser to the Veterinary Business Management Association student club. Zimmel said she 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.”

Students are paired with area practitioners in a “real-world” experience that allows them to enhance their business skills as they prepare to enter the workplace. They concentrate on one practice each week, and begin by meeting with the practice owner to discuss key areas the owners want to receive 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.

Veterinary student Amanda Ditson said she had not taken many classes up until now that had 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.”

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.

Jeff Sanford, M.B.A., director of entrepreneurship studies at the University of Georgia Small Business Development Center and founder of the original program at UGA, which UF’s program is modeled after, visited UF for two weeks in June to teach the first externship enrollees. He also trained 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.

UF and UGA are the only veterinary colleges in the country offer such a cohesive, comprehensive business externship to students, Sanford said.

“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 toward correcting that deficiency.”

Doug Lammers, D.V.M., 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.”

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.

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

“It was very nice to have someone else look at your practice and offer positive feedback,” said Ramirez, a 2001 graduate of the college. “They followed the pets and helped us notice what their clients notice with their pets. They provided a very comprehensive written evaluation of what they observed, calculated and researched.”