Dr. Donna McWilliams uses integrative medicine to expand her options for helping patients.
A lively little Dachshund named Pumpkin had suddenly become paralyzed with a herniated disc. But Donna McWilliams, DVM, wasn’t ready to give up on the dog. Having studied Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine (TCVM) at the Chi Institute in Reddick, Fla., she offered to try acupuncture and Chinese herbs. The owners eagerly accepted.
McWilliams gave Pumpkin electro-acupuncture, an herbal blend called Body Sore for muscular soreness and inflammation, and Gabapentin for nerve pain. Pumpkin showed improvement by the second session, and in 10 days, she was walking again. The overjoyed owners became loyal clients.
“I got into Chinese medicine because I got really tired of saying to clients, ‘There’s nothing else I can do for you,’” says McWilliams, owner of My Pet’s Animal Hospital in Lakeland, Fla. “Now I always have this other option to offer. It’s not expensive, it doesn’t hurt anything, and I’ve seen it open the minds of our other doctors and staff.”
McWilliams calls this approach to veterinary medicine “integrative” rather than “alternative,” because it draws from both Western and Eastern traditions. “I love it; it’s having two giant baskets to pick from,” she says. “We usually do a combination.”
The integrative approach has transformed her practice, with many of her patients now using Chinese herbs as part of their treatments. “That percentage has gotten very big,” she says. “Easily one in four of my patients are sent home with an herb.”
McWilliams is certified in both acupuncture and canine rehabilitation, and the practice’s other doctors bring their own special interests to the mix. For instance, Sara Davis, DVM, enjoys pocket pets, dentistry and behavior, while Price Dickson, DVM, has a long-standing interest in exotics and will start her formal TCVM training in spring 2024 at the Chi Institute.
From acupuncture to exotics, each ancillary service creates its own draw, McWilliams adds. “They all bring people to the practice,” she says.
And the practice is thriving. McWilliams is the sole owner of My Pet’s Animal Hospital with her husband, financial advisor Kevin McWilliams, acting as CFO. Since 2007 when she bought the practice, they have grown it from one to four doctors. In 2023, the practice is on pace to reach $3.2 million in gross revenue with EBITDA (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization) at a high-performing 20%. Donna McWilliams also co-owns Sarasota Animal Hospital with a colleague who runs the practice, while she has a hands-off advisory role and her husband performs similar CFO duties.
In 2012, McWilliams began studying at the Chi Institute. Over the next two years, she combined online learning with stints at the institute to work on patients, and began offering free TCVM to her own patients to practice the techniques.
For cats with kidney failure, she injected vitamin B12 into various acupuncture points to stimulate blood flow to their kidneys. She used acupuncture and herbs for dogs with kidney failure, and found she could extend their lives comfortably for a year. She minimized the effects of chemotherapy with acupuncture and an immune-boosting herb called Wei Qi Booster. She gave blocked cats an herb called Crystal Stone in addition to their urinary diets (or alone if clients couldn’t afford the diets) and observed urinary crystals clear and small stones break down.
After becoming certified, McWilliams began charging for her services, and TCVM now accounts for a small but growing stream of revenue. “From a gross revenue standpoint, it’s not a huge player, but the profitability is there, because there’s very little specialty equipment needed once you have the education,” says McWilliams. She estimates that she made back the cost of her training in under two years.
“For Chinese herbals, cost of goods is 30%, so there’s a good markup, but they’re still affordable for clients,” she adds. Revenue from the herbs is folded into the practice’s pharmacy revenue.
There’s also an overflow effect that is hard to calculate, since TCVM can extend patients’ lives and also brings more clients to the practice. “I get a lot of referrals for acupuncture and alternative medicine, and many people who come in for acupuncture become full clients and bring in other pets as well,” she says.
But for McWilliams, the key benefit that Chinese herbs offer is allowing her to practice better medicine. Some of the herbs are so inexpensive and effective that McWilliams simply uses them behind the scenes without charging for their use.
One of her favorites is Yunnan Baiyao, a powder she uses during surgeries and dental extractions. “You can put it in any open wound and it helps stop bleeding. Nothing messes up your surgery field like blood,” she says. “It’s good for the animal and helps us get through procedures faster and do the job better.” The amount used during a surgery costs her only a dollar or two. “It’s just a tool we can use if needed, like gauze,” she says.
Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine can be a useful tool for any veterinarian. “I don’t expect everybody to learn how to do acupuncture, since that takes years of training, but the herbals offer so much help,” says McWilliams.