Tackling the Backlog: Delivery Systems to Support Spay/Neuter Part Three: Mobile Clinics

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, there is an estimated backlog of 2.7 million spay/neuter surgeries. With more and more veterinary professionals leaving the field, the gap is growing, leaving rural areas impacted the hardest. 

While there is no single solution to this very complex situation, there are ways for private practice veterinarians to get involved in providing low-cost spay/neuter surgeries to their community, while still making money for their practice. 

However, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Through the Delivery Systems series, we hope to provide an overview of these options, and provide some insight to support veterinary professionals as they explore which model(s) may be right for them and their practice.

Explore more of our Delivery Systems series:

Part Three: Mobile Clinics
Written by: Brianna Lovell Myers

Photo courtesy of Fido Fixers.

If people can’t make it to the veterinary clinic, what if the veterinary clinic could make it to them? That’s the basic concept behind our next delivery system – the mobile veterinary clinic. Mobile units are a great way for veterinarians to provide high-quality affordable care exactly where it is needed most. 

Mobile units may be equipped to provide routine veterinary care, or they may specialize in specific services, like spay/neuter. Generally, mobile units are highly customizable, ready to fill in the gaps to fill whatever need impacts a community the most.

In terms of spay/neuter, mobile units can be a great way to bring low-cost services to “spay/neuter deserts,” or those areas where few – if any – spay/neuter services exist. Mobile units can easily travel into those communities, and target neighborhoods that have the biggest issue with spay/neuter access. 

Mobile units can also be a resource for MASH clinics, working in tandem with local rescues or other groups to provide the necessary surgical space and equipment, while the animals are prepped and recovered in designated locations outside the unit.

Between their responsive and mobile nature, their relatively low operating costs, and huge potential for positive impact – you may be wondering, what’s the downside of a mobile clinic? 

To learn more about the reality of running a mobile clinic, we reached out to Dr. Michelle Gonzalez, aka Dr. G. Dr. G is the founder of Rascal Unit, a mobile veterinary clinic aimed at providing affordable and accessible care to underserved areas in Ohio. 

What question do you get the most about your mobile clinic? 

There are a few, but the most common is how we can keep our costs low. There are concerns about us “cutting corners,” using expired products that are donated, or even that we do not use anesthesia. 

How do you keep costs to the public low?

Keeping costs low is possible through low overhead, increased efficiency, and smart inventory management coupled with discounts from large orders:

  1. Overhead: We have lower expenses compared to a brick and mortar facility. Lower cost of utilities, lower rent, and lower staffing needs. We work with humane organizations to provide our services which help reduce administrative costs.
  2. Increased efficiency: HQHVSN training helps veterinarians perform surgical procedures safely and efficiently through small incisions and use of instrumentation in ways that result in shorter surgery times. The staff is trained and proficient in anesthetic induction, surgical prep, and recovery. This allows the team to complete more surgeries in a shorter time, and also decreases anesthesia time which is safer for the patient and results in quicker recoveries. By performing more procedures in a day, the price per surgery can be reduced while still generating an income to cover costs.
  3. Inventory management and discounts: Product is ordered as needed and we do not have a large variety of products. We carry products of high quality with the least amount of overlap possible. Whenever available, we order large volumes of product and supplies to get discounts. We also work with vendors and distributors to maximize savings and split payments for large orders with minimal to no interest.

If I were thinking of starting a mobile clinic, how much money would I need to raise ahead of time?

The 3 major expenses are payroll, supplies, and clinic – in that order. To hire and retain quality staff you have to pay competitive wages with at least partial coverage of health insurance and a CE stipend. Our payroll is close to $700k a year for 12 employees (includes 2 vets). We spend about $10k a week on supplies, and vehicle lease is around $4k a month for 5 years. 

If the organization can fundraise for the vehicle, that’s a big help and I know of a few groups that have had their mobile clinics fully funded by a donor. We do around 13,000 surgeries a year. The total cost is going to depend on how many surgeries, how much staff, and what services are provided. 

Personally, I started with a $10,000 loan and everything was a lease or structured payment agreement with vendors. The clinics can definitely pay for themselves as long as everything is running smoothly.

Do I have to have a veterinarian on staff to run a clinic?

While you do not have to be a veterinarian to manage a clinic in some states, you do want to have one as part of your management team. You can’t run a clinic without a vet, and while relief services are useful, they are not always efficient or convenient. 

The veterinarian is the “quarterback” and sets the pace and flow for the day. A good team needs a good leader that is part of that team.

I have heard that mobile clinics are inefficient because you spay/neuter fewer cats in a day, as compared to stationary clinics. Is this true?

Think of a mobile clinic as a surgery room with holding cages that happen to be outside of the building. It is not any less efficient than a brick and mortar facility, you just need to have the space outside for receiving, holding, and releasing patients.

What is the biggest benefit of a mobile clinic? 

The ability to provide service to areas in need without having to set up a stationary facility. We can bring the service where needed and when needed.

What’s the hardest part about getting started?

Hiring the right staff. Not everyone is willing and/or able to put in the effort and hours required to run these clinics. For mobile clinics to operate efficiently and safely you need trained staff that believes in the mission of the organization. High volume is hard work and requires commitment, the ability to learn, multitasking, and teamwork.

What’s the best part of running a mobile clinic?

Helping animals and people who would otherwise have no access to affordable care and working with like-minded organizations that help us bring our services to their communities.

If you could go back in time, what piece of advice would you give yourself?

Hindsight is 20/20 and most of the struggles that I had helped me grow and develop better ways of doing things. While I could tell my younger self things that would have made life easier, I believe that the struggles we live through make us stronger. I suppose my advice would be to secure a good attorney and a good accountant from the start. I did many things on my own and having these professionals from the beginning would have been extremely beneficial. 

Any other tips for veterinarians who would like to start mobile clinics of their own?

Have a mentor or work with someone with experience in mobile clinics. There are a lot of moving parts and everything needs to come together to provide the best care while generating enough income to cover all expenses. Build a strong staff that includes management, assistants and licensed technicians and support them by paying them a competitive wage, providing continued training, and being part of the team. Good morale improves efficiency, productivity and loyalty.

Anything else vets should know re: this delivery system?

It is hard work, but it is rewarding. With the deficiencies seen due to the veterinary shortage and the many veterinary deserts that exist, mobile veterinary clinics are the best way to provide accessible and affordable care to underserved communities.

Last words?

Learn as much as you can, do the best you can, be open to change and adapt as needed. Develop strong partnerships and value your team.

Want to learn more about mobile clinics? Here are some groups to look at:

  • Catmobile at Merrimack River Feline Rescue Society