How to market to physicians versus veterinarians

By Pat Thomblison, DVM, Medical Director

I hear it all the time: “I wanted to be a veterinarian too, but I heard it was harder to get into vet school than it was med school.” I’m not sure of the validity of this claim, but the differences among doctors matter to me as Medical Director for a marketing agency that communicates with professionals ranging from veterinarians to refractive surgeons to dentists to plastic surgeons and more.

If you’re working with a product or service that crosses many healthcare specialties, understanding the day-to-day nuances – from patient interactions to the insurance landscape to FDA marketing guidelines – is critical to success. To help, I’ve homed in on a few of the key comparisons between physicians and veterinarians.

Do single-species doctors (a.k.a. physicians) have it best?

U.S. News and World Report listed physicians in the ninth position of the 2019 Best Jobs report. They base the annual rankings on criteria such as median salary, work life balance, future job prospects and stress level.1 (Physicians were part of a four-way tie for ninth along with obstetricians/gynecologists, oral/maxillofacial surgeons and prosthodontists. Pediatricians came in at number 8.) Veterinarians came in at number 64.

Here’s a look at some details about each profession:

  Physician (MD & DO) Veterinarian
Total in the U.S. 985,026 113,394
Years of education 8 8
Advanced training,
such as residencies or graduate programs
Required Optional
Mean debt upon
$190,694 $143,1114
Median salary1  $192,930 $90,420
Gender 35.1% female2 62% female5
Unemployment 0.5%1 1.7%
Average patients seen per day 203 20-40
Average number of
active patients
2,300 4,000
Population with
Under 65
Private 65.5%
Public 26.3%

A day in the life – veterinary version

With medical professions, a day at work can bring a variety of challenges and opportunities. For example, doctors can work in private practice, research, or academia. A “typical day” in the life of a general practitioner veterinarian in private practice might go a little something like what you see in the chart below.

Roles undertakenSchedule
SurgeonMorning rounds evaluating and treating patients hospitalized on site, plus those transferred in from an overnight emergency clinic 
Laboratory managerBlood testing for the day’s surgical patients. The tests are often completed in the clinic (something human-medicine physicians may not have the luxury of)
Clinical pathologistStart patient appointments, ranging from physical exams to vaccinations to examining the vomiting cat or the “ain’t doing right” dog
RadiologistOrder and complete radiographs (usually) in the clinic
PharmacistWrite prescriptions, with medications often dispensed from the clinic’s pharmacy (another difference from many human-medicine practices
Financial planner (more on this laterMid-day break
DentistBegin scheduled surgeries and dental procedures
AnesthesiologistCall pet owners to report diagnostic test findings
Counselor during end-of-life situationsResume patient appointments

Another part of a veterinarian’s day likely involves discussing the cost of services (back to that financial planner role). Veterinary costs have increased recently for multiple reasons, including the level of care pet owners expect. Despite these high expectations, pet owners often are shocked by the true costs of care. The vast majority of clients do not have pet insurance, which means they’re paying the true cost. This is most likely very different from people’s personal experiences with their own physicians, where insurance co-pays and covered services mask the real cost of visits and treatments.

Bringing doctors together to make a difference

Over the last 30 years, more than 75% of emerging diseases have been zoonotic. Physicians appear to find zoonotic disease a bit of a challenge and often consider this topic as one that belongs to veterinarians. Veterinarians, however, have no formal role on a person’s clinical team.

A study in Australia asked the public the following: If you’re diagnosed with a zoonotic disease, would you be willing to consult a veterinarian on the advice of a physician? Almost 80 percent self-reported they would be willing to consult a veterinarian and pay the cost themselves. If the cost was funded by Medicare, the Australian public health insurance scheme, almost 91 percent would be willing to consult a veterinarian.

What does this mean? For me, I see an opportunity to bring veterinarians and the human-medical field together to make a more formal plan for successfully handling zoonotic diseases.

At S&A, we worked on a project for one of our clients to educate pediatricians and veterinarians about zoonotic parasitic diseases and to help them inform parents and pet owners. At that time, our research indicated that human-medicine doctors felt veterinarians should tell their clients about zoonotic diseases and, similarly, veterinarians thought pediatricians should discuss it with parents. Surprisingly, many pediatricians said they saw children with intestinal parasites (toxocariasis) each year. S&A provided materials for pediatric clinics and veterinary clinics. By recognizing the communication challenges, we helped our client make a difference for people and pets alike.

Rules for success

Another commonality among the professions is regulation by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA). The FDA is responsible for protecting the public health by ensuring the safety, efficacy and security of human and veterinary drugs. As well as approving both veterinary and human drugs, the FDA establishes guidelines for truthful and balanced advertising that companies must follow for both veterinary and human products. 

This dovetails into a changing relationship between pharmaceutical sales representatives and the human medical practice, where fewer “sandwiches and samples” are being exchanged. Published research found that providing drug samples, sales pitches and free food influenced physicians’ prescription recommendations more than clinical effectiveness and cost-effectiveness. Part of the Affordable Care Act requires drug manufacturers to report every transfer of value to physicians and teaching hospitals that’s $10 or more. This contributes to fewer sales representatives visiting physicians. Although most of the restrictions are directed toward human pharmaceuticals, the effects will probably trickle down to veterinary products as well. These challenges make it all the more important to get a product message out in a variety of medias and venues.

In the midst of all these comparisons, a marketer must know what matters – and what doesn’t – because “the doctor is in” is only the beginning of the story.


2 Journal of Medical Regulation Vol 105, No 2