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What’s most important to you when you’re buying equipment for your practice?
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A veterinarian cannot operate by stethoscope and intuition alone. One of the more daunting realities of setting up and maintaining a practice is the sheer amount of stuff in which one must invest. Expensive stuff. Tools of the trade. From hand tools like surgical instruments and power floats to the day-to-day essentials like ultrasound and digital radiography units, all the way up to nuclear scintigraphy suites and MRI machines, the number of decisions equine practitioners must make is mind-boggling.

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Not all of these tools are necessary for every practice, of course, but a great number of them your clients will expect you to have available in order to provide a competitive level of diagnostic and/or surgical care for their horses. Each one of these pieces is an investment in your practice and your future, but none is so inexpensive that it can be selected casually.

How do you make buying decisions when you need to add a new piece of equipment to your practice (or replace an existing bit of technology which has given up the ghost or is simply obsolete)? What matters most to you? In some practices, it all comes down to dollars and cents, especially in this economy. In others, being cutting-edge is all that matters, and the machine that delivers faster information transmission, sharper image resolution or dazzling bells and whistles will win out over a comparatively inexpensive but basic unit.

Consumer loyalty and word-of-mouth can also play major roles in buying decisions. The company that has gone the extra mile for you in the past may well earn your business in the future. And a machine with which your colleagues in other practices have had a good experience might also get your thumbs-up instead of a similar but untried unit.

Penny Pinching?
Douglas Thal, DVM, a solo practitioner at Thal Equine Regional Equine Hospital in Santa Fe, New Mexico, says, “In this economy, I have to distinguish need vs. want. We all want the product with the best and the slickest features, but I ask myself, ‘Will I be able to charge appropriately for those bells and whistles?’

“Horse owners are being much more careful with their money these days, so if I can’t be reasonably sure I can justify the extra cost of those fancy features, I have to believe that basic functionality may be all I need. And I really didn’t find myself thinking that way two to three years ago.”

Technology is improving all the time, so just like cell phones and TVs, there’s always the possibility of buyer’s remorse mere seconds after you take possession of a piece of equipment, when another company comes up with one that is both cheaper and has better features.

Terry Ruch, DVM, an internationally recognized lameness diagnostician whose practice at the Barrie Equine Clinic in Barrie, Ontario, focuses on Standardbred and Thoroughbred racehorses, says, “I’ve decided it’s sometimes best not to be an early adopter. Digital radiography is one good example … people who bought the first units which came out had to maneuver around a large cable, which was a bit of a hazard around horses. A year later, the DR units were wireless and much safer.”

Like Thal, Ruch is also being more careful with his purchases these days. “All of this equipment is so expensive that you have to be selective. We all have items that we know we are going to use every single day, but there are other pieces of equipment that might not be used enough to pay for themselves. Sometimes it’s not so wise to invest in something you’ll only take out five times a year.

“Of course I would like to have every little gadget at my disposal, but my way of thinking these days is that if it’s something that fits in your practice’s specialty, it’s worth investing in … whereas if it’s really not [within your specialty], then it might be more prudent to refer your client to another practice that focuses in that area and has invested in that equipment.”

There are times, however, when it’s worth it to splurge–or at least to buy the very best equipment you can afford. “When I bought my digital radiography unit,” Thal says, “I did my research and bought the most expensive unit (at the time) on the market. That unit had rapid image acquisition–two seconds as compared to 10 seconds or more for some of its competitors–and the quality of the images was great. For me, those were really important features, and I have not regretted going with the product that I chose.”

He adds, “There are also occasions where there might not be a direct, clear profit in owning a particular piece of equipment, but there’s the perceived value of having it. If it fits into your specialty, then your clients will expect you to offer that diagnostic or service. For example, if you focus on sport horses, you will probably need to have a video gastroscope to diagnose ulcers, even if you don’t use it all that frequently.

“You have to decide whether it fits into the long-term scheme for your practice.”

Comparison Shopping

Veterinarians have plenty of options at their disposal these days when it comes to shopping for equipment. Catalogs and online surfing can provide one with a wealth of preliminary information, but being able to hold a product in your hand and push all its buttons is still very important for most practitioners.

“I do like to have salespeople come to the practice and demonstrate their products,” says Thal. “If I’m seriously shopping, I’ll have several come by and show me their wares at least once, sometimes more than once. I want to see the unit in action.”

Ruch says that, like many of his colleagues, he uses trade shows to examine the pros and cons of competitive products in a short time frame. “Lots of vets use the trade shows at AAEP and other conferences to do their comparison shopping when they have to upgrade. The units and the sales reps are all there under one roof.

“I hang onto the brochures and info sheets I collect at trade shows,” he adds, “so I have them at hand if a piece of equipment in my practice should break down and need replacing on short notice–which is really the biggest buying nightmare for me. I don’t want to have to make a snap decision I’ll regret, but sometimes it’s something that’s in daily rotation that you just can’t do without.”

That very scenario is often where a company can make or break its relationship with a veterinary practice. The manufacturer (or distributor) that stands behind its units and will replace a unit or provide a loaner unit to a veterinarian in need is far more likely to have that veterinarian’s loyalty and consideration for future purchases.

“You really have to consider where the company is based and how quickly they can respond if you need assistance on a loaner,” says Ruch. “You also have to remember that companies are starting up, disappearing and merging all the time. That means service agreements are also changing. Service availability is number one for me, so I’m far more likely to go with a unit from an established company that has a good reputation and looks like it is going to be around for the long haul.”

Thal agrees, noting, “Support is a big deal to me, and it should be. Is the company going to stand behind its product when it counts? There are some companies who go above and beyond when it comes to service. Good word of mouth is invaluable.”

For really unvarnished word of mouth, many veterinarians seek out the recommendations and advice of their colleagues via internet chatboards such as the Equine Clinician’s Network (link: http://www.vetmed.wsu.edu/orgecn/index.asp). If you’d like to hear about a particular item’s strengths, weaknesses and quirks, this may be the best method–and on most chatboards, you can post anonymously.

Incentives, Sales and Other Bait
The economy has been just as harsh to manufacturers of medical and veterinary equipment as it has been to the practices to which they cater … so it’s no surprise that there is an increasing number of sales tricks being employed to encourage you to sign on the dotted line.

These days, with most of the essentials having price tags with four or five zeros to them, lease and lease-to-own agreements are extremely popular. “Most of the expensive units are offered on lease now, and that has worked out well for us,” Thal says. “The agreements can get complex, however. You can do a buyout lease that’s essentially like a mortgage, or a fair market value lease … there are tax advantages to each and it’s worth consulting an expert before you close the deal, because you’re locked in once you sign. You have to be careful that you don’t get stuck with something you don’t really need.”

Thal adds that one of the more useful lease features he has encountered is the willingness of some companies to stagger payments to reflect the veterinarian’s income. “We have been able to arrange to pay more during our busy months and less in the winter when it’s quiet,” he says. “That has been extremely helpful to us.”

Ruch remarks, “For me, it’s usually better to purchase outright or to do it through a line of credit than to lease, but my practice is pretty established. I can see the value in leasing for newer practitioners especially.

“It’s also worth remembering that if you own a piece of equipment that is functional, but you want to upgrade, that some companies will take trade-ins. The company then often re-sells those units, affordably, to new grads who may still be establishing credit with their financial institutions.”

A good sale can be worth snapping up, but not if it pressures you into making a premature purchase or a purchase with which you’re not completely comfortable.

“I’m naturally leery of start-ups,” says Ruch. “No matter how good the deal might be, I’m far more inclined to go with a well-established brand.”

Both Thal and Ruch, as solo practitioners, have the luxury of making buying decisions more or less unilaterally; but larger practices generally have to take into consideration the wants and needs of several clinicians. A bigger practice may mean more expensive pieces of equipment see more regular use, which can help justify the cost–but it can also complicate the decision process.

One thing is likely universal, however: No equine practitioner is making these buying decisions lightly. “I think long and hard about each and every item before I invest,” says Thal. “If I make the wrong decision, I have to live with it for a very long time.”