TRENDS IN YOUR INBOX: Oh, what a relief it is—Relief veterinarians can help create a better work-life balance

Hiring a relief veterinarian to provide coverage for veterinary hospitals and staff is a well-known practice. The notion of trained professionals providing respite for veterinarians offers advantages for all parties and can be especially beneficial if the process is managed with care. Relief veterinarians can play an important role in a busy practice; the right person can help build a network that provides much-needed relief for staff, whether for short- or long-term needs. Along with respite for the veterinarians, a relief veterinarian can also bring revenue into the practice while the primary staff is absent, thus preserving the practice income stream.Having a trusted, trained professional in place offers a critical opportunity for a veterinarian to step away from the pressures of the practice, recharge, and come back to the job feeling renewed and with fresh energy to engage with the demands of veterinary life. Along with vacation, maternity, and even sabbatical coverage, relief veterinarians can provide coverage for dentist and doctor appointments, school outings, or other life events. This coverage, in turn, creates space for the primary veterinarian to prioritize his or her life around the things that matter. It’s not just about being able to be there when a child or grandchild is sick but also about being able to be there when they are healthy.

There are a number of key elements of creating a successful relationship with a relief veterinarian, including knowing how best to incorporate him or her into the practice, how to utilize the relief veterinarian’s skills, and how to work with practice staff to create a cohesive message for clients. Along with these, it’s important to understand your practice’s culture and to evaluate whether you are offering a welcoming, professional environment for the visiting staff member. 

Mitchell Moses, DVM, MBA, SHRM-SCP, is AAHA’s chief operating officer. He spent eight years as a relief veterinarian earlier in his career. “As the practice owner, it depends on how you have framed this for your clientele and your staff,” he says. “If it’s framed properly with the staff, if the veterinarian is medically sound and a good fit from a personality and style perspective, having a relief veterinarian can be a great asset to the practice. If not, it can present a liability.” Moses encourages veterinarians to learn how to better utilize relief veterinarians and ensure that they are an asset to the practice.

Getting Started

Almost any practice can use the services of a relief veterinarian. The important aspect of that decision is finding the right person, or organization, to partner with. A small hospital with one or just a few practitioners may utilize a relief veterinarian to provide staffing when an associate leaves a practice, thus creating a vacuum until a new hire can be made. A growing practice might use relief veterinarian services to cover the transition between needing a half- or full-time doctor on staff. A practice of any size would be able to make use of a relief veterinarian to cover for a medical or maternity/paternity leave, vacation, or other personal leave time.

Some practices may hire an individual for relief services like managing the recordkeeping and tax reporting, while others opt for contracting with an agency and allowing them to screen and manage contractors. No matter the circumstances, “the goal is to create the best fit in terms of personality [and] practice style differences,” says David Grant, DVM. He’s the founder and owner of Relief Services for Veterinary Practitioners, a Denton, Texas–based organization that has been providing veterinary and technical relief services to a three-state area since 1992.

“Finding the right veterinarian to provide relief services can help create [a] healthy work-life balance,” says Grant. He relates that might look like taking an afternoon or a day off to attend a football game or utilizing a relief veterinarian for busy Saturday mornings rather than hiring a full-time associate.

Cindy Trice, DVM, served in general practice after graduation and has now worked as a relief veterinarian for more than a decade. She sees that relief veterinary services are more relevant now than ever, especially in light of veterinary wellness issues. “Relief is a practical, partial solution to that issue,” Trice says.

Being a relief veterinarian requires a special skill set that extends beyond clinical or professional experience, Trice notes. “It takes a certain mindset to do a relief practice well. You have to blend in, be flexible, and be able to figure out how to extract information that may or may not be readily available. You get good at reading all sorts of records or figuring it out when there are no records to be read.” These “people persons” are called upon to successfully relate to a steady stream of new people. “You interact with a subset of clients and staff and sometimes have to come in and lead a group of people you don’t know,” Trice says.

In support of her relief veterinarian efforts, Trice started, an online community to help relief veterinarians connect, establish best practices, and more.Like their staff counterparts, relief veterinarians are often problem solvers. They may work with a variety of practices, which can be a benefit; they can bring a new perspective, a fresh set of eyes, to their work. “We pick up techniques, protocols, or products that we can introduce to other clinics,” says Trice.

The Culture Equation

The culture of a practice has a big impact on the role of a relief veterinarian. How a practice views that individual is reflected in how they portray him or her to clients and to each other. Culture also plays out in how the practice uses the relief veterinarian’s services; if they are viewed as a “substitute teacher,” as opposed to a licensed professional, the practice may not be making the best use of the resource.

Moses tells the story of a solo practitioner who rarely left for vacation. The doctor’s argument was: “I’m paying him [the relief veterinarian] to lose me money.” Not only did it cost him to go on vacation, he also had to pay a relief veterinarian to cover appointments even though clients tended to shy away from the unknown doctor. “If he had hired the right person and trained the staff to represent him or her to clients in a positive manner, that scenario would be different,” Moses says. “That’s the culture piece. If you have a strong culture, it should be easy for a relief vet to come in.” Moses advocates for a healthy practice culture that uses relief veterinary services effectively so that veterinarians and other staff can take time off, recharge, and tend to their personal wellbeing. “Historically, we have not done a good job of that,” he says.

How to Make It Work

Following a few solid ground rules can help ensure success for the practice, staff, and relief veterinarians.

  • Avoid the “substitute teacher” mentality. Be sure that staff present the relief veterinarian as a trusted licensed professional rather than someone who is “filling in for the regular doctor.” Train them to avoid the “substitute teacher” or “babysitter” mentality and focus on the relief veterinarian’s skills.
  • Know and trust who you are putting in front of your clients. Take the opportunity to get to know your relief veterinarians.
  • Ensure that reception and staff have informed clients who they will be seeing. Surprising a client with an unknown practitioner is not a great way to start a visit.
  • Keep the relief veterinarian busy and productive. Don’t allow uncertainty or a lack of knowledge about a veterinarian to get in the way of scheduling them. A relief veterinarian should be able to engage with clients and be trusted to conduct business on your behalf.
  • Encourage good communication and exchange important information in advance. Be sure staff has information such as license numbers and establish communication regarding protocols and medications used.
  • Discuss pending procedures or surgeries. This can help provide seamless care for clients. Discuss topics such as anesthetic protocols, scheduling, and expectations about recordkeeping and practice management software.
  • Understand the important role of support staff and ensure the relief veterinarian is connected with an experienced staff member. Good support staff can make all the difference for a relief veterinarian.
  • After the relief veterinarian’s “shift,” close the loop and connect by phone, email, or whatever mode is comfortable to ensure that all necessary knowledge has been transferred. Share insights about the experience and talk about any changes to be made for future coverage.
  • Treat the relief veterinarian well. Bring in a relief veterinarian as part of a two-way working relationship rather than just someone to fill a shift. In today’s labor economy, veterinarians will choose to return to a practice where they are well A relief veterinarian can be a powerful resource for today’s practices and hospitals. Utilizing these trained professionals as part of a human resources strategy can help create opportunities for work-life balance and give staff the ability to recharge and come back with renewed energy for the work at hand. Using a few key strategies can set the stage for success for everyone. For a practice that takes the time to establish quality communications, set expectations, and ensure that the relief veterinarian has a quality support system, having relief services can be a rewarding experience for the staff and the client.

“If the practice does a good job of making a relief vet feel respected, not like an afterthought, then everybody wins,” says Grant. “You have to make a deliberate choice to make relief vets welcome and be sure they have what they need to function at their best.”

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