From divinity school to the veterinary front desk: Kelly Drescher Johnson, BA, M.Div., finds her purpose

In honor of Veterinary Receptionist Week (April 23–29), meet Kelly Drescher Johnson, BA, M.Div., who has found fulfillment and purpose working at the front desk—and on the frontlines—in vet med. She’s just one of the multi–talented, brilliant, dedicated veterinary receptionists to be celebrated next week and beyond.

Kelly Drescher Johnson, BA, M.Div., didn’t set out to be a veterinary receptionist. Her liberal arts education led her down other paths first: She tried teaching but soon discovered that it wasn’t for her. She worked for an airline, which let her travel the world on-the-cheap, but she wanted more.

A hunt “through the wilderness” for her purpose led her to Boston University, where she felt a sense of truly coming home. She earned her Master of Divinity degree—but ultimately realized that the ordained life wasn’t for her either.

It was pure coincidence that she applied for a job at a veterinary practice. She credits them for taking a chance on a woman with a master’s degree wanting to do reception work. It turned out to be a stroke of synchronicity, because she absolutely loved it.

Now, six years into her career in vet med, Kelly is working toward becoming a board-certified chaplain, and she’s helping create a network of veterinary chaplains to serve the whole profession.

If it seems unusual that someone with such varied interests would want to occupy the front desk at a veterinary hospital, she assures us, it’s not.

“I have worked with some people who have amazing backgrounds,” she said. “I worked with a woman who . . . studied to be an undertaker. I work with a woman who used to be a professional wrestler when she was younger. Women who . . . have psychology degrees and have studied art, or they love to rock climb.”

“There are so many skillsets because most of us did not intend to end up in veterinary medicine,” she said. “We didn’t study animal science with the intention of being here. We generally accidentally fell into it.”

In honor of Veterinary Receptionist Week (April 23–29), we’re bringing you a sneak peek at Kelly’s conversation with host Katie Berlin, DVM, on Central Line: The AAHA Podcast, which drops on Tuesday, April 25. (You can also see Kelly highlighted as one of our 15 to Watch for Women’s History Month in 2023.)

We hope Kelly’s insights and nuggets of wisdom inspire you to celebrate your own front desk team in the coming week—then look for a second conversation coming soon to the podcast, which will delve deeper into the role of veterinary chaplains. Here are just some of the highlights from Part 1 of the conversation, hosted by AAHA’s own Dr. Katie.

On embracing the “veterinary receptionist” title

“I have put down veterinary receptionist as my title on my resume, and it’s because I am proud of being a medical receptionist in the veterinary field. I know so much more than just how to work on Word, or an Excel document, or answer the phone; I know about medications, and I know flag words and trigger words that mean I need to ask for more help or ask more questions.”


“. . . the title of whoever sits at your front desk does set a tone for how you as the professional plan to interact with this person and what you expect out of them. So, if you want them to really focus on the client care, and that’s really the focal point of the job they’re doing, there’s nothing wrong with that, but be aware that when you’re using that title, you’re saying it’s the client care first—and what does that mean for your staff?”


On paying a living wage

“Reception work is generally considered an entry-level position: You don’t have to have any education in veterinary medicine, or any medicine. For some people, this is their very first professional job—and they’re paid like that—but it’s not a living wage, and for the amount of work that you have to do, a living wage should be expected out of that. This is not something a 16-year-old could ever do.”


On empowering your staff

“If you’re gonna empower your staff, be very clear about how they are empowered to do things. One of the places I worked . . . if it was really busy and we were backed up, I was allowed to order pizza for people. And rather than people being hungry, now they’re eating something. I’ve cared for them. The staff has a moment to catch up, and that abated a lot.

Or I could order somebody a coffee because they’d been there for 12 hours with their sick pet and were not gonna leave their side. . . . that’s an empowerment that I can actually care for that client while the rest of the team really cares for their pet.

In fact, that’s something I do when I have codes or serious cases come in: I’m talking to the client, getting the information, and I will say to them, ‘We’re all here for you. They’re gonna focus on Fluffy. My name is Kelly, and I am here for you. That’s my only job right now. Whatever you need, you let them know you need me, and I got you.’”


On what not to say to your veterinary receptionists

“. . . stop talking about how hard our jobs are: We know. If you went into work every day and somebody said, ‘I could never do your job. It’s so hard. You have the hardest job in the hospital . . .’ why would you stay?”


On using unique skillsets

“. . . I used to love [creating new patient packets] . . . putting all the little goodies together. [That’s a perfect task for] someone like me, who loves to take care of the aftercare and be responsible for making sure that we have the up-to-date information from our crematorium—or [following up] to make sure that people know the ashes or other memorial items have come back . . . [Because that’s] a sensitive phone call. Even helping with making bandages and flushes. We want to utilize our skillsets.

. . . [There are] so many organizational people on your reception team. We want to be utilized to the fullness of our personhood. Not to maximize the output per hour that we’re there, but [to be seen] as a person, and for who I am, and what I love. And then help me utilize that. You’ve got so many skilled people in your CSR team, in your veterinary team.”


On CE and de-escalation training for veterinary receptionists

I would love to see some CE out there, especially since your hospital assistants, your reception team, are brand new. Let’s do CE on medical terminology and abbreviations. I need to know that SX means ‘surgery’ and TX means ‘treatment’ or Q means ‘how frequently.’ I need to know that methadone really cannot be abbreviated . . . Let’s do some basic terminology CE.  What are flags that you need to ask more questions or get a professional on the phone?”

“Your reception team is literally encountering everyone. We need to know anti-Semitic training, anti-LGBTQ discrimination training, anti-racism training, and to confront your own bias . . . your reception team is full-on facing it with the general public. We need to have more DEI CE and de-escalation training. We don’t need to be SWAT trained, but . . . We’re going to be the frontline of an angry client. . . How do we prevent people from screaming in our lobbies? . . . There are CEs we could be doing with the whole team, but reception specifically. And I really hope somebody out there starts providing reception-focused training that the rest of the team can utilize.


On one special thing you can do for your veterinary receptionists

“Embroider their names on their scrubs . . . truly, you are gonna make them feel like they belong. It says, ‘I think they’re going to stay; I’m gonna put the money into personalizing this because I believe they’re going to stay.’”


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Photo courtesy of Kelly Drescher Johnson

Disclaimer: The views expressed, and topics discussed, in any NEWStat column or article are intended to inform, educate, or entertain, and do not represent an official position by the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) or its Board of Directors.



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