12 Ways to Fill Openings and Retain Clients

Staff shortages mean long hours and frustrated clients. Here are some creative solutions you can implement to boost morale and thwart burnout.

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Creative Solutions to Deal with Staffing Shortages

Colin Combs, DVM, owner of AAHA-accredited West Ridge Animal Hospital in Greeley, Colorado, oversees 70 employees between two hospitals. He currently has eight veterinarians on staff—the remainder are technicians and support staff—but he needs more.

“We should have nine-plus veterinarians and we’re still down at least two techs,” said Combs.

West Ridge had to alternate schedules between June and November so everyone could get scheduled breaks, lunches, and time off. The altered schedules cut doctor appointments down from 18 per day, per doctor to 12 per day, per doctor.

The altered schedules, combined with curbside service during COVID-19 restrictions, caused additional stress on staff, as well as frustration among clients who couldn’t make a same- or next-day appointment as they were accustomed.

While the hospital is once again up and running at full capacity, Combs said it is a daily battle attracting and retaining staff in these post-COVID-19 times.

“Our whole team has been talking to practices facing labor shortages,” said Margaret Spalletta, practice consultant for AAHA. “Practices are barely holding their heads above water. They are more swamped than they’ve ever been and can’t keep up with their workload, which leads to compassion fatigue and people quitting.”

Since the pandemic began, veterinarians say there has been an increase in demand for services. There are various theories for this, but many believe it’s due to an increase in people adopting pets and possibly being more attentive and finding issues while they were home during lockdowns.

Veterinarian Shortages Stretching Practices Thin

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the veterinarian field will need 4,400 new veterinarians per year, each year through 2030 to replace those retiring or leaving the field. These statistics were gathered before 2019, and the pandemic likely has made the need greater.

“When I started two decades ago, we were expected to go, go, go long hours until we burned ourselves out. People do not want to do that anymore.”

—CHRISTIAN CUMBERBATCH, DVM

Sarah Wooten, DVM, now the veterinary specialist for Pumpkin Pet Insurance in Silverthorne, Colorado, is an example of someone who left the practice field for something a little different. Wooten worked for practices for 16 years. “Until veterinarians have been in it a little while, they don’t understand how stress affects your life, and I just wasn’t willing to sacrifice that part of myself anymore,” Wooten said.

Wooten started building a career in media and public speaking, as well as developing continuing education classes for practicing veterinarians. “I teach client communications and personal development, things I wish I’d learned in vet school,” said Wooten. “I felt I could make a greater impact on the profession teaching and speaking.”

Combs said he believes there’s a myriad of reasons there is such a shortage of veterinarians. “I had one go on maternity leave and didn’t return,” he noted. “I think another huge reason is the corporations are in vet schools and recruiting students by their junior year. As an individual practitioner, I can’t have someone in the vet schools recruiting.” West Ridge has also had to resort to hiring relief veterinarians to work the day shift. “It’s expensive and they’re sparse,” said Combs. “We don’t even try to fill our night shift with relief as it’s too expensive.”GettyImages-1289394452.png

Keith Niesenbaum, VMD at Banfield Crawford in Garden City Park, New York (formerly Crawford Dog and Cat Hospital), said he’s had personal experience with lucrative relief vet offers. “A practice offered me $250 per hour to work Christmas Day this past year,” said Niesenbaum, who sold the practice to Banfield in 2020. “It was a very attractive offer, but I wanted to spend that time with my family.”

A heightened sense of prioritizing family seems to be a theme in veterinary attrition. Christian Cumberbatch, DVM at easyvet Alpharetta in Atlanta, Georgia, said COVID-19 changed attitudes. “I think COVID made everyone look at work-life balance and shed a light on our practice culture,” said Cumberbatch.

Veterinarian shortages are a problem in both urban and rural areas, but the problem in rural areas has been worsening for years. Prior to the pandemic, Animal Clinic of the Ozarks in Flippin, Arkansas, was open until 5 p.m. Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday and until 7 p.m. on Tuesday and Thursday. One of the three veterinarians moved out of the area and the two veterinarian partners made the decision to cut the hours to 8 to 5 Monday through Friday. “It worked better for us and for our entire staff,” said Robyn Theobald, DVM. “We might do something different if we could get another vet, but we have to find someone who really wants to live in a rural area.”

Vet Techs Are Burning Out Sooner

Stress of curbside service fell mainly on veterinary technicians, who also take the brunt of client frustration as well, said Elizabeth Maimon, DVM, MPH at AAHA-accredited Hills and Dales Veterinary Clinic in Kettering, Ohio. “One of the clients tried to intentionally run over a vet tech in our parking lot,” said Maimon. “A vet tech quit and left the industry because of client abuse.” Maimon added that those clients were fired by the practice, but she said it highlights the stress technicians have been under.

Elizabeth Clark, hospital administrator at Ballard Animal Hospital in Seattle, Washington, said they lost six employees in the three weeks prior to talking to Trends. “I think there is a new surge of disrespect by clients and unrealistic expectations from people who have no type of awareness of what we can and cannot do to help their pets,” said Clark.

Clark also noted that all the staff that have quit have been technicians or support staff at the five-vet practice. “I think many of them are suffering some form of PTSD from having to tell people we cannot get them in,” said Clark. “We haven’t taken any new clients in the past 10 months, and we have to refer 8 to 10 current clients per day to other clinics.”

12 Creative Solutions

  1. Culture initiative: Spalletta said AAHA is working diligently talking with practices and trying to help guide them through this difficult time. Spalletta added that one thing practices should create is a documented culture initiative that outlines the values, beliefs, and behaviors of your practice, keeping in mind it is always changing and growing. “It isn’t a requirement to have this document, but it’s recommended to put the policy in place,” said Spalletta. “We can even speak to practices about how to get started.”
  2. Form a cooperative with other offices: Amanda Cavanagh, DVM, DACVECC, head of critical care and assistant professor of small animal emergency and critical care at AAHA-certified Colorado State University Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Fort Collins, Colorado, said one of the things that helped them through a temporary reduction of hours and services was forming partnerships with participating veterinarian offices to help cover the area-wide shortages of vet care. “We created a live document, and we were each posting when we would be open for new cases. This was especially helpful in knowing which emergency clinics were not taking patients that day,” said Cavanagh. “We were also able to help them with certain services we knew they didn’t have, such as blood transfusions and surgical capability.” Cavanagh said she was “shocked” at how well the co-op system worked and continues to work.
  3. Adjust hours and pay: While longer hours helped Theobald’s practice grow and thrive, shortening the hours wasn’t just about being down one veterinarian. “We found staffing hard on weekends, as many people wanted that time to spend with their families,” said Theobald. “We learned no matter our hours, people will come in during those hours and this worked out better for our staff. They are happy to have two days off in a row.”

    More quality time with family may be the driving factor for many these days, but pay is also still a great incentive to attract and retain employees, said Combs. “Pay for staff and technicians has lagged, but I think with COVID-19, it has caught up somewhat,” Combs added.

    Cavanagh agreed. She sees the effect that pay—especially in public university hospitals—has had on their ability to keep employees. “I think it will come down to paying people what they’re worth, especially techs,” said Cavanagh. “In other fields, people are rewarded for their skill and knowledge, and this industry has been behind in that.”

  4. Back up your staff: It used to be that “if a client got upset, they weren’t always right, but we were more tolerant and would say, ‘we don’t know what they’re going through,’” said Combs. “Now, we’re at the point of being intolerant with clients if they’re cursing and abusing any of our staff.” He noted that, while it hasn’t added up to many, he implements the “one strike” rule, firing the client by sending them a letter and their records after one bad interaction.

    Clark said before the pandemic, they fired maybe two clients per year. “We’ve had to terminate quite a few clients,” noted Clark. “I even posted on social media about being kind to your vet staff.”

    Maimon said firing egregious clients shows the staff they are supported. “Vets really do value our staff and I don’t know if they always know that.”

  5. Give techs more responsibility: It may seem counterintuitive to put more on vet techs, but if they’re only serving as “kennel keepers,” vets for this story agreed they should be used to their full potential, which should give them more gratification that they’re using their skills. Of course, the amount of responsibility you can give your techs is outlined in state guidelines. However, Niesenbaum said you should be training and giving them what the law allows. “Our techs can administer meds, monitor anesthesia, and quite a bit more, short of diagnosing and prescribing drugs,” noted Niesenbaum. “Our techs take the pet in, does a quick review, and gets all initial information for the doctor. This frees us up to do something else.”

    Maimon added that if you’re short at the front desk, you can ask someone else on support staff to help. “We even have our bookkeeper answering the phones sometimes.”

  6. Establish a drive-up, keep curbside, and offer drop off: “We installed a drive-thru service for medicine and food refills,” said Maimon. “Our techs do curbside and do things such as nail trims, changing bandages, and elective blood draws. We also allow for drive-thru surgery admission and discharges, and it moves things along quicker.”
    Theobald said since shortening their hours, their drop-off program has become very popular among clients. “Everyone has such a busy life; we allow our clients to drop off their pets without an appointment. Our techs do the intake and initial vitals and we (the vets) fit the exam in between surgeries and appointments. Our clients can then pick them up after work or after we’ve seen their pet.”
  7. GettyImages-1291773406_[Converted].pngGet creative in finding techs and vets: “We’ve been using students from foreign vet schools as techs while they wait for their license,” said Combs. “We then try to convert them into vets for our practice.” Combs practice also looks for techs in many tech schools. “We try to be creative and we’re lucky to be able to advertise the geography here,” explained Combs. “We’re not far from the beach or the mountains, which is a big draw for younger age groups.”
  8. Hire vets and techs part time: “Right now, there’s a large group of female doctors, many of whom do not want to work full time due to their families,” said Cumberbatch. “When I started two decades ago, we were expected to go, go, go long hours until we burned ourselves out. People do not want to do that anymore. Maybe you can’t find someone who wants to work full time, but it might be easier to find two people who want to work part time.”
  9. Utilize per diem or relief vets: “Before, many practices didn’t want to use relief vets or pay per diem as they typically didn’t work out,” said Cumberbatch. “Now, vets are coming right out of school and not signing on as an associate and going straight to per diem or relief work. Theobald stated they are using a relief vet for emergencies and after hours. Cumberbatch added that all practices who decide to do this should be prepared to pay. He said rates have increased 40–50% in some areas. “Some are charging up to $1,200 per day and demanding not to have to do surgery,” said Cumberbatch. “Many are also very young.”
  10. Consider a no-surgery model: Cumberbatch advocated for the model easyvet has, which is to only examine pets, administer medication, and do other minor procedures; the practice doesn’t perform any surgeries. He said this model frees up techs and doctors to see more patients and takes some of the stress off vets and techs. Pets requiring surgery and hospitalizations are referred to specialists. Wooten agreed this might be a good model to help alleviate stress and burnout. “I was so naïve when I entered vet school, I didn’t realize all vets are required to do surgery,” she said. “It wasn’t something I wanted to do.”
  11. Consider telehealth: Some corporate practices, such as Banfield, have programs that allow certain clients to access a vet through a telehealth program. “They can answer questions, triage, and sometimes determine if they actually need to come in,” said Niesenbaum. “It frees up our staff and phones.”

    Some individual practices say it sounds like a great option but is less doable considering they are having a hard time finding vets for the practice. “If I had the vet staff I needed, I could use one just for that purpose,” said Combs.

    While many veterinarians are leery of telemedicine, Cumberbatch sees this as one of the most promising ways to ease the staff and veterinary shortages. “I think there will be call centers eventually doing this,” he said.

  12. Ensure staff is trained well—and help others if you can: Finally, in addition to creating a culture initiative and using all the resources provided by AAHA to help you and your staff deal with today’s practice challenges, Wooten added that if you’re so inclined and find it your calling, helping others at conferences is a good way to give back to the profession. 
 
 
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Kerri Fivecoat-Campbell is a pet/animal writer who lives in a cabin in the Ozark Mountains with her five recycled (rescued) dogs. She is the author of the book, Living Large in Our Little House: Thriving in 480 Square Feet with Six Dogs, a Husband and One Remote.

 

Photo credits: SiberianArt/iStock via Getty Images

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