By Alexander Shedd
“The building’s nice, but ultimately it’s a tool,” remarked Dr. Rich Bryant on the new facility being constructed behind the current Salem Animal Hospital building. “It’s nothing without the people–the people who work it, and the people that bring their pets in. We’re just trying to build a very nice, accommodating, highly-functioning and efficient tool to do our jobs with.”
With 75 years of service under their belt, Salem Animal Hospital is a pillar of the Roanoke County veterinary community. This fully private operation on Main Street is the oldest veterinary practice in the Roanoke Valley, founded in 1945 by Dr. “Tommy”
Thompson. It was purchased in 1971 by Dr. Allen Bryant, father of Rich Bryant, who now runs the hospital alongside his wife Danielle, Dr. Christine Ferris and Dr. Jordan Weintraub. Bryant purchased the practice from his father in 2008.
Now, Salem Animal Hospital is migrating to a new state-of-the-art building in the same lot that will fully replace the current building, which is set to be demolished. The new facility, projected to open in January 2023, is more than 9,300 square feet and will contain seven exam rooms, a comfort suite for end-of-life care, two surgical suites, a dental suite and a spacious treatment room.
“We have three exam rooms right now,” Dr. Bryant chuckled. “That’s why we’re doing this.”
The challenges of constructing a brand new building have been significant given restrictions and supply chain issues in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and rising
inflation. In the world of veterinary medicine, the pandemic posed a unique challenge as a stunning number of people adopted new pets during quarantine. For Dr. Bryant, however, this unexpected boost in clientele was an essential opportunity for expansion.
“This is a horrible time to build with the way things are,” Bryant noted grimly. “We actually started looking at this in 2019, then we started on the planning and design phases with TWC, our general contractor…then COVID hit and we kind of put the brakes on things because we didn’t know where to go, then we found with COVID that business was starting to take off because everyone was at home getting dogs and cats. But then everything changed with the economy, prices started going up, and we realized we have to keep going. We can’t keep doing what we’re doing now in this space, so we just got a very big loan and now we’re in it. Committed.”
The veterinary field is one of serious dedication to the science of animal medicine. Veterinarians spend four years in their doctoral program, plus an additional two for those who wish to specialize. Upon graduation, the average amount of student debt for a new veterinarian is $183,000 according to the American Veterinary Medical Association, while entry-level starting salaries currently average around $50,000 in Virginia based on data gathered by ZipRecruiter. Additionally, veterinarians see the 4th-highest suicide rate by profession in the country.
“There’s a high burnout [in being a veterinarian],” commented Bryant. “There’s a lot of passion, then subsequently compassion with it. This field is constantly evolving each year as far as our capabilities, but also from the cultural side of things too, like socioeconomic factors, and some days you’re like, I can do all this, this, and this, yet you just feel like a used car salesman, because a lot of vets can’t do that, and you get that. We’re trying to set it up so that everyone has a good work life here, but we’ll still keep pushing ourselves. You have to be comfortable at times, but don’t get too comfortable, or you’re going to take your finger off the pulse of where things need to be.”
Private veterinary practices like SAH are generally owned and operated by the doctors who work there. However, there is a growing trend toward the corporatization of practices as many struggle to make ends meet. This trend has caused significant controversy in the veterinary community; while many defend corporatization for its benefits in cutting costs, raising salaries and streamlining efficiency, others claim that the strict standardization of medical protocols and the tightening of employee autonomy are incompatible with high quality care.
“When you become large enough, the emphasis and need for standard operating procedures and boundaries becomes necessary. It’s a whole lot easier for me to try to watch and make changes with twenty people than with two thousand,” Bryant explained. “I sometimes think [corporate practices] get a bad rap, to be honest, because they have to employ those strategies in order to, one, maintain CYD [calendar year deductible] for themselves, but also to maintain some types of standards and routines. As far as profitability, they’re all about the money, et cetera, but you also have experts looking at the money. Private practices aren’t known to be the best businesspeople at all, and that’s why a lot of times we’ll be known for working our butt off to save everybody but not having a lot when it comes to retirement.”
Bryant went on to present the other side of the debate. “There are positives to [corporatization], but you also have the other side of, ‘we’re only going to practice medicine this way, so when this case comes in with these clinical signs this is how you’re going to handle it.’ Once you take that autonomy away, and that freedom from that individual doctor that may do very well thinking outside the box, you’ve limited the care. That’s where we can lose a little bit of our identity. When you try to standardize a cookie-cutter approach to medicine, I think you lose your innovation.”
As Salem Animal Hospital continues to serve its countless clients ahead of the expansion, Dr. Bryant noted his appreciation for his dedicated staff. Despite SAH’s reputation of high quality care, veterinarians are still often the targets of criticism for the expensive nature of their services.
“In my opinion, traditionally, veterinarians far outperform the cost of their services,” Bryant asserted. “It gets very tiring when people say, ‘you’re all about the money, you’re money-hungry,’ et cetera. I wish people could just see what our staff and doctors do daily, and what they do as well that no one gets any compensation for. But we just eat it. We just hear it and keep going, but they, in my opinion, should be paid three or four times what we’ve been doing this for.”
Upon completion of the new facility, Salem Animal Hospital will have a four-day window to move their entire practice before demolition. While veterinarians around the country deal with a sea of new clients and the growing reality of corporatization, Dr. Bryant paints an optimistic picture of the hospital’s future and looks forward to continuing their work with the Salem area in the new building.