Lockdown Economy USA in a Veterinary Clinic with Dr. Andrew Chigos
The interview was transcribed and adapted into an article by Tapasya Das
Lockdown Economy: Interviews by think tank AlterContacts.org with real entrepreneurs sharing insights, challenges and successes during the COVID19 global pandemic to inspire, motivate and encourage other entrepreneurs around the world.
In this interview, we meet Dr. Andrew Chigos, the owner and operator of Wildwood Veterinary Clinic in Portland, Oregon. Dr. Chigos founded the Wildwood Veterinary Clinic in June of 2017, growing initially from two employees to nine today. They are a small animal general practice providing everything from preventative care to major surgeries. When the lockdown was initiated in March of 2020, his practice was drastically slowed. For the first two weeks, many clients were canceling appointments. Dr. Chigos and his team called hospitals in the area to share their PPE equipment until hospital supplies stabilized. Soon, pet adoption drastically increased as people sought new avenues for companionship. Also, as more clients were spending full time at home with their pets, they had extra questions about their behavior and health. As 24-hour emergency veterinary clinics became burdened after the increase in pet ownership, Dr. Chigos and his team were picking up as much of their overflow as possible. Dr. Chigos initiated a curbside pet dropoff and pickup protocol so only staff could be in the building. He enhanced and formalized their online pre-appointment intake form to strengthen communication with clients after losing face-to-face interactions with them during pet appointments. He also recognized the toll the added workload and stress was having on him and his employees and hired additional staff.
Thank you for joining us today. Andrew. So here is my first question. What does your business do? How did you guys get started? How many employees do you have?
Andrew: We are a small animal veterinary practice. We started in June 2017 with me and two other employees. Now it has grown to nine employees. There are two full-time doctors and we are just a regular small animal general practice. We do surgery, diagnostics, preventive care and we recently added acupuncture onboard. We work out of the clinics located in the South Waterfront area. It is a nice and compact urban area. So we have this community feel with it too. We really like it there.
Are you the only vet in that immediate vicinity?
Andrew: Yes, in South Waterfront, we are the only vet. We got fairly lucky in getting there. There was actually a time when we were looking for a place to bring the veterinary clinic into. We were looking for a spot and at the same time, there was another veterinarian who was looking at it too. Surprisingly, we were both bidding on that spot. So we got lucky and we are pretty happy about it.
Good! How long were you in operation before the pandemic hit?
Andrew: So we started in June 2017 and so I am coming up on almost three years.
Do you feel that your client base was pretty established before March 2020, when everything went crazy?
Andrew: Yeah, we had a great client base. We had a great rapport with our clients. We were a clinic that really did want to be a part of the community to the point where we would even have Halloween parties! We would open up, our clients would come in, we would get some appetizers and drinks and we definitely socialized with our clients. We got to know them pretty well and as we walked around the area, we would always say “Hi!” if we would see them. We had a pretty good establishment of our clients.
So since March 2020 and the beginning of the Lockdown, what were some of the challenges that you ran into? How did you overcome them?
Andrew: Yeah, it was just like everyone else. It was definitely a learning process and we knew it was coming. It was panic because we were under the impression that people were not going to bring their pets to the veterinary clinic. They were going to stay at home. So there were a lot of things we were going about in the beginning. And for the first two weeks, it was almost like that. Our practice was very quiet and we thought this was going to be it. We were preparing for this. Then after that, it changed pretty drastically. The appointments went through the roof. Over the next month or so we started booking almost like a week out which wasn’t usually the case. We used to be busy for one to two days out usually. What we were seeing was that a lot of people were getting puppies and kittens. But there were mostly puppies and so there were always new puppy appointments. So we were seeing more and more clients. Actually, new clients were coming in too. We were hearing the same things from some of the other veterinary clinics we had spoken to in the Portland area. Then, it continued to progress even more to the point where we were almost two weeks out for being booked. Then we started hearing a little bit more of that. The emergency clinics were getting too booked up. There were almost 12 hours of waiting to get into the emergency clinic. So we were also seeing more emergency appointments. It was just so much more extra work, we weren’t prepared for.
I read that the adoption rate for dogs and cats went through the roof because people needed some extra companionship during the lockdown. It must have really impacted you guys.
Andrew: Oh it did! I mean it was great! In the beginning, we saw so many puppies and I just said, “Hey! This is just wonderful. It’s just puppy time.”. We were all just playing with the puppies while doing all the preventative care for them. But there were a lot of new clients too. There are a lot of tricky things with this because you are not in front of these people. You are talking to these people over the phone, without getting that face-to-face relationship with them. So it’s a lot of trusts that they are developing in you. It is actually a lot more conversation with them as well. We had to switch our protocol. We weren’t allowed clients in the building anymore. That was fine and we were okay with that. So we basically switched to a curb-side check-in. Other than cases of euthanasia, we never had any face-to-face contact with clients. So the puppies were actually kind of difficult after a while because you are basically on the phone with these people and you are trying to give them all the information possible. You don’t have the face to face rapport with them. So it feels like there are so much more questions and it takes up a lot more time. So these appointments, which are scheduled typically for 30 minutes, will come in 45 minutes to an hour. So it was changing quite a bit as it was making it. We had to adjust pretty drastically.
So let’s say I am a dog owner and I pull up to your curb. One of your folks comes out to pick up my dog. So do I just wait there? Am I on the phone with you while you are examining the pup? Is it happening in real-time?
Andrew: Yes, we try out a couple of different things. I talked to other friends who run veterinary clinics and all of us agree that there is no good way to do this. It doesn’t work well this way. But basically, we would take the pet in. One thing we got really good at is that we ended up making check-in forms. We put them on our website. It’s almost like when you go to the doctor. We didn’t have these before. When you go to the doctor, you have to fill up all those paperwork. We ask them things like, what your recent illness was like and all these. So we actually put those on the forum online and we encourage people to fill these out and send them before. We have already had all the questions we wanted to ask so that we can summarize without having to do that over the phone. But basically, we would examine the pet and depending on how they filled up the form, usually what we do is call them and, Then we tell them that we found this, this is what our plan is and we tell them the other questions we have. They will just be on the phone. The owner would be sitting in the car or outside the whole time. A lot of people would walk to our clinic so that they actually wouldn’t be in the car. So that was good and bad. Sometimes they go home, which would work okay. But sometimes if they were five-six blocks away, they would stand outside, and then they are on their cellphones. There is construction across the street and we try to talk to them about all. It has been difficult and so it is a challenge.
What are the fellow veterinarians that you are speaking with doing? What have you learned from them? What are the other customers who are going to other vets doing? What are you hearing about your industry in the area, as far as learning goes?
Andrew: Well, most of us are on the same page. I would say that there was actually one veterinary clinic near us, that, we were told, was open to seeing clients all the way till October. It was quite frightening and surprising. But most clinics would close down due to the same sort of thing. The most recent conversation I have had with another veterinarian was about the fact of how difficult it has been on the staff. They are overworked. Unfortunately, I understand that the clients have a lot of frustrations because they can’t see the doctor and they don’t know the doctor. We don’t have that rapport. There are lots of frustrations and sometimes, unfortunately, it’s on our staff. They are exhausted and they are trying the best they can. I was talking to one of my other veterinarian friends who owns another clinic. She said the same thing. They had to extend their exam times. It is not the traditional 15–30 minutes exam time. It is now 45 minutes to an hour. All of it is curbside and we came to an agreement that there is not a perfect way to do this. In the beginning, we thought that this would actually be more efficient because we would be able to do everything without the client being there. But it turned out that the efficiency went down drastically and we were all actually waiting for the day when the clients would be back in the room.
What is the status now? Are they able to come into the room now?
Andrew: Yes. Some of the rules are a bit ambiguous now. You know for euthanasia, it is allowed. I agree with it. There is the biggest one about behavior. That is indeed a tricky one. If it’s a dog or a cat, the client definitely needs to be there. If it’s a safety issue and the dog or the cat can’t be examined without the client in there, I think it can be allowed. I think it’s up to the veterinarian with their discretion. Usually those, we are doing with the behavior ones. We are pushing things back and hoping that things will open up and we can be in one room safely together. Our whole staff isn’t fully vaccinated at this point either.
So you mentioned that you have a lot of new clients because they are getting new pups. It was probably a little easier to adjust to the new way of doing things with existing clients because you already had a relationship. How did you do that initial rapport building with people and animals that you had never met before? Did you figure out a way to get that rapport built-in that different way?
Andrew: That is tricky. We were pretty fortunate I think. We have been open since 2017 and we have been really close to our clients. Our clients were great and they have some really amazing things to say about us on reviews. So I think that was a big thing for these people coming in. A lot of these people came to us because they know about our reviews. They have read our reviews and they have heard our stories from our other clients about our interactions. That helped us and almost gave us a little bit more of a starting point. Then as far as after that, it was really just spending a lot more time with them on the phone. We were answering as many questions as possible. We were also there for them. Our workload with emails went through the roof too. So we were basically emailing left and right and we were keeping in contact with people. The other thing interestingly enough was the fact that we were trying to figure out why the business got so much busier. One of the reasons was the fact that the people were home all the time. So people were staring at their pets all the time now but before they used to be at work. So the emails we were getting were reasonable because our clients don’t know these things. There would be cases like, “You know my cat coughed once or this happened. Should I be concerned about it?”. So we were getting all of those things which we wouldn’t have seen if they were not at home. So they have spent more time with them, which is great. But it’s also tough because we are trying to balance how many appointments we can see and how much time we can spend with the person.
So they were maybe overly attuned to every little change in a pet’s behavior.
Andrew: It’s fair and I don’t blame them. I understand that.
So coming over to the next coming months, do you have some strategies that you have prepared, as things look a little better and we try to come out of this?
Andrew: I haven’t really gotten too much into it but the plan is to try to open up a little bit with the behavioral pets that were pushed back. There are instances when you have to have the owner and it makes it a more positive experience for the dog or the cat. We are going to start there slowly. I don’t think we are going to rush at all to open up. Even though we really do want to be face to face with clients again, I just feel that it is a safety issue. With all these variants of COVID and the way things are changing, I have no idea where I am going to be in six months. We haven’t really planned it completely. Ideally, we want to have more face-to-face interactions. We have actually implemented telemedicine and that is one thing that we started doing. We were planning on doing this before COVID started and this just pushed us directly into it. We have been trying to do that a little bit more and it has been nice. Oregon, as a state, has done a good job. They have backed off on some of the rules as far as the annual exams and implementing telemedicine. That has helped quite a bit. But we haven’t sat down and spoken specifically about what our steps are to be taken because we don’t feel like it’s coming that soon.
You were actually leading me towards my next question. What have COVID-19 restrictions and all the other things you have had to face pushed you into doing, that you found beneficial? What are those things that you probably wouldn’t have done were it not for these challenges?
Andrew: I think what I just mentioned was the big one. I went to a conference in December, before COVID. I was looking at getting telemedicine put into veterinary practice. That was something that is still very new in the veterinary field. So I was trying to figure out if that would work for us. I was pretty set on doing it. I just wasn’t sure which company I would try to work with and then COVID happened. We were pushed directly into it. It is still a process and I am still trying to figure out how to make this work efficiently. That has been a positive thing. I think there are so many things. In veterinary medicine, we were just talking about maybe small things. I don’t necessarily need the stress of bringing the dog or the cat into the clinic. Through telemedicine, a lot of things can be done like human medicine. So I think that has been a positive change. I think another positive change has happened even though it hasn’t been very efficient. It has been about figuring out some things in our practice that we could improve on to make it more efficient. It was because we had to cram everything into a certain amount of time. Actually, for me as a small business owner, it made me realize that I was actually understaffed. I didn’t realize how much I relied on my staff. Before COVID, we had one doctor, a technician, and a receptionist. I didn’t realize that those receptionists and technicians worked so much. Now I take a step back and I see that they basically worked as two employees. Then with COVID, we needed more people because they were exhausted. I said, “Okay, we need to increase staffing.”. So it was nice to establish what the appropriate staffing would be. So that has pushed me in that direction. Yeah, a couple of good things happened. Then the other thing is, I honestly thought that less time with a client, either face-to-face or online, would make it more efficient as far as the exam, the diagnostics, and everything. It made me realize that partnering in a room with a client is so much more efficient. Then also we were talking about it and it develops that trust and rapport. Then we can be on the same page. As far as treatment and diagnostics for the pets go, it just opened my eyes and I just realized that the face-to-face thing is 100% more important.
Well, probably that can be translated to you having to say or go through things twice. If you can’t have a live conversation when you are doing the exam, you and your assistant are going through the motion with the animal and you are getting stuff done. But then you have to go and repeat everything you did to the owner, whereas you could’ve done it right there, live. So that probably added half of what it would have normally taken. So what did I miss? Is there something that you want to make sure that you got a chance to share? You are speaking to other business owners out there. So what did I forget to ask you, that you feel like we should talk about?
Andrew: I think there are a couple of things. I don’t think I am prepared for this and I think nobody is prepared for it. It is still a new business. So I went from day to day, thinking and looking at how we were doing day to day, how we are going to do next month. But I never was prepared for this. I didn’t know at that time, how drastically things could shift with the business. Luckily it didn’t shift for us in an absolutely horrible kind of negative way. I did it for a little bit and it increased the other way. But it made me realize that if there is some pandemic around, I need to be prepared. I need to be prepared further down the line for one month or one year because it can possibly be something you are not even expecting. So it was a big thing that I got out of all this. The other thing is, I just realized how much I relied on my staff. You know when all this happened, they have been extremely busy. It has been really tough for everybody. I actually had one of my favorite technicians, I started the practice with, end up leaving because it was too much for her. I think in the veterinary field, people don’t understand. I want to say this in the nicest way. Just like in the human medical field, we are working like crazy right now. We were working harder than we ever did. We are trying the best to do and get everyone in as possible. But sometimes we can. The emergency clinics are booked for 12 hours out. We are trying our best to help everyone out. So patience is really appreciated. Because like I said, with our processes, we are trying to be as efficient as possible. But it is not the way we are doing it. But everyone wants to do the best they can right now for people’s pets. I think most of the people are great but sometimes patience is limited. I understand it’s a less stressful time but that has been really tough on our staff.
As a dog owner myself, I mean our dogs are a part of our family, as well as our kids and our parents. So it’s a sensitive situation and everyone’s nerves are afraid. In addition to all that of that, because of the elevation of stress, the situation is precarious.
About the Guest
Originally from the San Francisco Bay area, Dr. Chigos moved to Oregon to complete his veterinary school clinical program at Oregon State University. Since graduating in 2008, he has been practicing small animal medicine in Portland, serving as a lead veterinarian at a local clinic before opening Wildwood Veterinary Clinic in 2017. Dr. Chigos and his wife and daughter have lived in Portland for over 12 years. At Wildwood Veterinary Clinic, the goal is to provide pets with the most innovative and comprehensive care while involving their pet owner clients in the decision-making process. They are dedicated to making client’s visits informative, efficient, and comfortable. They specialize in preventive care, dentistry, advanced diagnostics, surgery, and emergency care.