By Marcia Hill Gossard, College of Veterinary Medicine

Since he began teaching the Veterinary Practice Management class in 2004, Dr. Rick DeBowes has been on a mission to prepare students for something they don’t typically learn in school ― how to run a business.

“I chose to take this course because having strictly a science background, I knew very little about business management and managing large scale finances,” says Brianna Graisy (’19 DVM), who plans to buy a practice within five years of graduation. “It’s fairly common for veterinarians to run seemingly successful businesses when in fact their clinic is losing money annually. I wanted to prepare myself as much as possible to ensure that my future practice will not follow this pattern.”

Students learn business financial basics, such as profit and loss reports, cash flow and inventory management. They are also taught small business law, human resource fundamentals, and what types of professional and personal insurance they should consider.

“One of the biggest takeaways from this course for me was being able to understand and analyze profit and loss statements and balance sheets,” says Graisy. “I had never seen them prior to this course and couldn’t imagine attempting to run a business without this introductory knowledge on business finances.”

Seeing a need beyond this elective class, in 2015, DeBowes started the Practice Management rotation where fourth‑year students can assess the strengths and weaknesses of an operating veterinary practice.

“Understanding how a clinic functions ― its assets and liabilities, as well as its daily revenue and expense structure, along with its business legal and risk issues ― helps our veterinary students to appreciate what is essential to being successful and sustainable as a professional over a 30‑ or 40‑year career,” says DeBowes, who is the director of the Veterinary Professional Life Skills Development Program at WSU.

Students spend a two‑week rotation observing and evaluating two successful veterinary businesses. Skills from the practice management course are applied in real‑world settings to review and improve private practices. Students interview hospital owners and health care teams and review the clinics’ business practices and then analyze what they’ve learned to provide specific business recommendations to the practice owners.

“It prepared me for what no other rotation or class even came close to preparing me for, which was being an employee of a business,” says Susanna Perenboom (’16 DVM), who, for the past two years, has worked for a small animal private practice in Portland, Oregon.

And because student debt is a real concern for many new veterinarians, Perenboom says knowing how to bring in more clients and increase a clinic’s revenue means new veterinarians are in a better position to negotiate higher salaries at the beginning of their careers, so they can begin to pay down their high interest student loans sooner.

“The business rotation teaches us to understand the needs of the business and to be effective veterinarians, whether as a practice owner or an associate,” she says.

DeBowes has now started the Veterinary Business, Management, and Financial Literacy Fund to provide continued financial support for WSU veterinary students to get the business and management skills they need to be successful. The funds will be used to bring in expert speakers for the practice management course and to provide funding to offset rooming, food and travel expenses for students traveling across the Pacific Northwest to assess clinics. And, according to DeBowes, this investment is paying off for students.

“As a result of the people we bring in and the emerging business learning experience we now offer, students are leaving school and earning higher first‑year salaries because they know how a veterinary practice business works,” he says. “In contrast to most students, WSU veterinary students come to appreciate that good medicine is not only what the client wants and the patient needs, but it is also great business.”

(This story originally appeared in the College of Veterinary Medicine’s Advance newsletter.)