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Too busy? Hospitals’ advice on how to slow down and keep staff sane

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Heather Parker, practice manager at Twin City Veterinary Clinic, a small, one-doctor practice in Port Neches, Texas, posted the following question on the AAHA-Accredited Members Facebook page a couple of weeks ago: “I know all our clinics are so busy and staff exhaustion is a REAL issue right now. Any ideas on what to do to alleviate this for my team? Not just gifts and surprises, but like scheduling [tips] or real options to allow them to breathe more often?”

Her colleagues at other practices around the country were quick to oblige.

Susan Driever, practice manager at Animal Hospital Highway 6 in Sugarland, Texas, wrote, “We are going to rotate paid Fridays off until everyone’s had a three-day weekend. We are short-staffed. I’d love to give everyone a week but that’s not real right now.”

NEWStat checked in with Driever yesterday to see how her plan was working out. “It’s going well,” she said. “Our first team member took last Friday off and completely clocked out for the [weekend]. She appreciated the opportunity to recharge her batteries.” Driever said a second team member will take this weekend, and a third team member will take the weekend after. “We’ll keep plugging away until everyone gets a weekend to recharge.”

David Hawkins, owner and practice manager of Dogwood Pet Hospital in Gresham, Oregon, wrote that his staff tells every nonclient that it will be at least two weeks before their next opening, and they limit new client visits to one per day, although never in urgentcare slots. “I hate to throttle new client numbers,” Hawkins told NEWStat, “but we can’t afford to turn away current clients because we scheduled a time-intensive new client who can’t meet the doctor in person.” And that’s if the new client even shows up. “It works short term out of desperation,” he acknowledges, “but stifles long-term growth.” It doesn’t help that, like Twin City, Dogwood is short on veterinarians.

“Throughout this, we have had to throw out 40+ years of fine-tuned protocols [to] hastily implement a new way of working with clients,” Hawkins continues, voicing a concern common to many practices. And many of those clients are growing increasingly impatient to come back inside, which presents other problems. “I think part of the fear in many practices is the unknown about when and how to reopen the doors to clients,” says Hawkins, who has reassured his staff that he has no plans to allow clients inside any time soon, and that he’ll actively solicit their input before doing so. “I think our best coping mechanism is communication,” he adds. “Two [members] of my small staff have even told me that they consider our practice their second safe space [after home]. I don’t want to jeopardize that.”

Sherry Knopp, DVM, co-owner of Babcock Hills Veterinary Hospital in San Antonio, Texas, said her hospital stopped accepting new clients entirely. “We were being inundated with new clients and could not take care of those we already had,” she told NEWStat. “I never, in 35 years of being a practice owner, envisioned something like that coming to pass!” Knopp said they’ve only had the policy in place for a week now, but the veterinarians say it’s definitely streamlined their days.

Knopp’s hospital also started reserving three appointments per day for same-day urgent care cases and another three for nonurgent medical cases. “We have four to five doctors working every day, so that allows for six slots total for medical concerns versus wellness visits,” she says. “If a patient needs attention, we can usually get them in without having to schedule them as an urgent care walk-in. If an existing client calls and we are already completely booked, we will allow them to come in as a walk-in with an added urgent care fee on top of our regular office visit fee.” She says the first available doctor available will see them as soon as possible, but makes sure the clients understand there could be a long wait. “It’s important to take care of the clients we have and not overextend our doctors.”

Pamela Turner, front desk shift supervisor at Bellevue Animal Hospital in Bellevue, Nebraska, says her hospital settled for no new-client appointments on Saturdays—those days are reserved for current clients. As a seven-doctor hospital, they can afford to be more flexible. “We don’t close for lunch or turn off the phones,” she says, which were other popular suggestions in the Facebook thread. “We have added at least 10 minutes to our service times, with the exception of vaccine appointments, to allow for the time needed to run back and forth to the cars, as we’re still completely curbside.”

After talking to some of the accredited members who’d responded to Heather Parker’s original Facebook post, NEWStat checked in with Parker again to see how her hospital’s been doing. She says she discussed many of the suggestions with her hospital’s owner, and their biggest takeaways were learning to say “no” and setting limits.

Parker said, “For us, setting limits meant multiple things that were mentioned in the thread, such as booking nonurgent cases further out than we normally would; limiting new clients to one or two per day; truly telling clients ‘no, not today’ versus working three clients in on top of my already-overworked and overbooked doctor.”

The hospital also closes for lunch for an hour and a half, per another suggestion in the thread. That means they turn off the phones and all staff leaves the building to ensure that everyone gets a break. Previously, she says, “My technicians and DVM were sometimes working through lunch if surgery ran over.”

Given her hospital’s staffing limitations, Parker, like Hawkins, is an advocate for clear communication, and schedules short, 5- to 10-minute staff meetings at irregular intervals to reinforce staff unity: “I can announce any changes or concerns and it gives the team a moment to breathe and voice their concerns, too,” she says. “Long lunches are great right now, but [taking 5 minutes] to let my team know I see they’re exhausted and that we’re doing what we can to help them is sometimes more beneficial than an hour and a half away from the clinic.”

Photo credit: © iStock/LaylaBird