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Chapter 16: Tales from the COVID-19 front lines

“The human-animal bond has never been stronger. During times of really challenging situations, people need pets.”

Chapter 16: Tales from the COVID-19 front lines

This week: Dr. Peter Weinstein on wildfires and pet care, Dr. Bob Lester on a checkmark-shaped recovery, Debbie Boone on her “Open Letter to Clients,” and more.

Read the first 15 installments in this series:

Chapter 1  Chapter 2  Chapter 3  Chapter 4  Chapter 5  Chapter 6   Chapter 7
Chapter 8  Chapter 9  Chapter 10  Chapter 11  Chapter 12
 Chapter 13  Chapter 14  Chapter 15

Veterinary industry consultant and Southern California Veterinary Medical Association executive director Peter Weinstein, DVM, MBA

It is noon. The sky is an unimaginable hue. The sun looks like Mars. There is California snow (aka ash) on the cars and ground and in the sky, swirling like a blizzard. It is September.

A not-so-new pandemic has hit the entire left coast from Canada to Mexico. Every state is impacted by wildfires.

The air is so bad that my daughter in Oregon can’t take her dog outside except to go to the bathroom.

Throughout all of the above, business continues as “un-”usual during the viral pandemic that still rocks our world. I have not heard of a noticeable drop in busyness. With ash in the air and in our eyes, veterinary teams are out there. Because we care.

Practices in high-risk fire zones are helping out as much as they can with cage space. As people get evacuated, their options for places to go with their pets are frequently limited, so many veterinary practices go out of their way to be accommodating. This time is no different. Because we care. Too much.

Wildlife gets brought to the door with injuries and burns from the smoke and flames. Wildlife that isn’t routinely cared for by many practices. There isn’t enough staff to care for them. There isn’t enough time to care for them. But we care for them. We do our best. They are important, too. Because we care. Too, too much.

We continue to take care of people and their pets. The human-animal bond has never been stronger. During times of really challenging situations, people need pets. Pets show unconditional love, are someone to talk to who isn’t judgmental and don’t have a political opinion. The pandemic was made for pets and their people. The veterinary profession has been called upon to do to yeoman’s work in the face of PPE shortage, people shortages and a deadly infectious disease. We do it because we care. Too, too, too much.

Care for each other now more than ever. A hug, virtual or otherwise, is needed for that oxytocin surge that will make us feel better.

Here is my six-second virtual hug to all of you on the frontline fighting fires or fighting fiery clients. (Research suggests hugging or cuddling for more than six seconds to release oxytocin and serotonin at maximum levels.)

Creative Disruption columnist and WellHaven Pet Health chief medical officer Bob Lester, DVM

For months, we’ve heard economists discuss potential shapes of the economic recovery. V-shape, U-shape, W-shape, pick your symbol.

V-shape, the most commonly desired, is defined as a quick drop from baseline followed by a quick return to baseline. Our veterinary profession is experiencing an even more desirable checkmark-shaped recovery, a quick decline from baseline followed by a quick return to and move above baseline.

The pet space is a COVID-19 winner. We’ve rapidly returned to and exceeded pre-COVID revenue levels. Practices across the country are experiencing record growth, helping more pets than ever and providing essential care to pet families. The importance of pets has grown tremendously during the pandemic. Pets provide connection, unconditional love, support and stability through difficult times.

While our profession is growing, we all recognize the resulting stressors placed on veterinary hospital teams. We’re sometimes too busy, often tired and occasionally understaffed, and we deal with challenging clients at times. That said, we are busy, we are providing for our families, we are delivering an essential service, and we are making a difference for countless pet families. Comparably, friends in industries like travel, hotel, restaurant and retail long to be busy, to provide for their families and to get back to work.

I know what we’re doing is hard, but what we do is important. We’re making a difference and living our professional purpose. Thanks for all you do. Stay well.

Veterinary industry consultant Debbie Boone, CVPM

“Settled” seems to be the best term to describe veterinary teams. They have settled into a new groove with curbside care.

I am seeing discussions of a few clinics opening back to clients yet limiting visitors to one person per pet and requiring mask-wearing.

Clients are still behaving badly, with practices firing them in record numbers. I reached out to my friend Dr. Alison Lambert in the U.K. to see if British pet owners were behaving rudely. Apparently, that stiff upper lip is real, because she said “not as much.” We both agreed that if clients had trusting relationships with their clinics before COVID-19, they were more likely to still be kind and collaborative today.

In order to ease some of the pain, I wrote an “Open Letter to Clients” for veterinary teams to download and share. The letter, which may be requested at bit.ly/3bYQ6t8, explains the current demand for veterinary care and how harshly teams are being treated, and asks for grace. Many practices have received positive responses and a much-needed morale boost.

Veterinary practices are still busy, and many managers and owners have done the unthinkable: Stop taking new clients and start taking a deposit before an appointment is booked. It seems people who can’t get in to see their regular veterinarian are calling just to book and then going to the earliest available doctor but not canceling the other appointments. Some of this no-show behavior was happening before the pandemic, but now it is many times worse and very frustrating when the schedule is packed and appointment times are in high demand. The decision to reserve time for existing clients has simplified life but also caused even more pressure on the front desk when they inform new callers of the fact. It has always been a tough position, but in today’s world, it takes nerves of steel.

I must mention the bravery and kindness of the veterinary teams in the line of wildfires who have opened their clinics, homes, yards and farms to evacuated animals. 2020 keeps on throwing us curveballs, and yet we keep rising to the occasion. Resilience is the word of the year, and because of the struggle, I began a new Vodcast called “The Bend” (bit.ly/3iua4OY), which is based on that topic.

Sometimes we need to hear how other people power through hard times so that we can model our own path. This year’s road certainly has lots of hairpin curves.

Socially Acceptable columnist and The Social DVM founder Caitlin DeWilde, DVM

Many veterinary practices are able to focus less on staying afloat and more on adopting permanent change. It doesn’t come easily. There are inevitable struggles with any change. Practices are still juggling curbside service, COVID-related absences, an abundance of puppies and in-patient clients, and staff shortages. It’s a true testament that practices are forging ahead to not only continue to provide the best care for their patients but also finding ways to care for team members, too.

I’ve never seen so many practices forgo income in lieu of giving team members a weekend off. Colleagues are dropping by baskets of goodies to pamper their teams, managers are choosing to move past the undeserved negative online reviews and reward the positive ones, and practices are looking for strategies to improve efficiencies.

To me, this seems like the only way forward in an environment we can’t predict and that is frustrating at best. Focus on the positive, support our team members, and look for new ways to improve efficiency and workflow.

Here are some of the best ideas I’ve seen:

  • Emailing a brief history form 24 hours before the appointment (or with an appointment confirmation email). I recommend using free Google Forms or JotForm, then copying and pasting the answers into the medical history at check-in. This decreases tech time on the phone.
  • Adding a “What to expect” section to your website and to email confirmations so that expectations are set for how curbside appointments work.
  • Utilizing telemedicine for rechecks, particularly surgery rechecks.
  • Using licensed veterinary technicians for triage and telemedicine appointments.
  • Recording discharge information on video for sharing after common procedures are done, such as spays, neuters and dentals.
  • Recording and emailing video discharges for drop-off and curbside appointments so as not to play phone tag with the owner.
  • Using Loom.com to easily create video explanations of X-ray and bloodwork results and sharing them with the owner.
  • Rewarding team members with credits on their pets’ veterinary account, with IOU’s for a bonus day off in three to six months, with a free lunch or dinner, and by stocking the breakroom with snacks.
  • Eliminating team meetings in favor of an online communication portal like Slack.com.
  • Adopting a mobile app to decrease client phone calls and allow for prescription refills, appointment requests and client messages.
  • Sharing all positive feedback, messages and reviews with the whole team so that everyone knows that they are contributing to the “wins.”

Getting Technical columnist, practice management consultant and Patterson Veterinary University instructor Sandy Walsh, RVT, CVPM

Things have settled down a bit mostly because we’ve been doing this for over six months and it’s become somewhat routine for our teams and clients. Veterinary practices have begun to level off as summer winds down, although many remain very busy. Curbside is still the norm, but clients are being allowed back inside with distancing restrictions. Everyone is wearing masks.

Pre-visit communication has improved efficiency. Clients are sent and asked to complete history or admit forms in advance of the appointment, which cuts phone time when they arrive. Online or mobile payment options are helping to curb the heavy phone volume as well. It’s still a stressful time, and even with efficiency measures in place, the team is worn down.

Many team members are finding ways to take time off, but it’s becoming more and more difficult as the school year begins. Employees with school-age children are again scrambling to balance home-schooling and work. We are feeling the staffing crunch again.

Continuing education has changed. Many of the major veterinary medical and management conferences have gone virtual. The learning experience is different and the exhibit hall is not as fun, but attendance is robust. I can see this continuing in some form as it is much less expensive to attend and allows those who can’t travel to participate. We do miss the hugs and handshakes.

The good news is that we are resilient and continue to look to the future, whatever it looks like.

The Vet Recruiter founder and CEO Stacy Pursell, CPC, CERS

Veterinary hiring is full steam ahead with thousands of openings for veterinarians and other team members. We are still in the midst of a shortage of veterinary industry professionals.

There is less fear now on the candidate side, with more veterinarians being comfortable with interviewing and changing jobs during the pandemic. My company has not heard of one instance of a candidate getting COVID by attending a job interview. Earlier in the pandemic, many interviews were conducted virtually. Now, more are being handled in person again. It almost seems normal.

Job candidates hold the cards because they are in demand and they can pick and choose where they want to go. This is driving up salaries. I have a candidate interviewing with seven veterinary practices. He is deciding between multiple offers. This is typical when someone is ready to make a move.

Money seems to be more of a driver these days. I am seeing candidates take the highest offer if the options have insignificant differences. One client lost out on a candidate because another employer offered $60,000 more in annual salary — $200,000 versus $140,000.

I are hearing from some veterinarians that child care has become more difficult due to COVID. One veterinarian told me that her child care expenses had increased since her children’s schools are closed and she has to pay another provider to watch her children and help them home-school. Because of this, she asked for a higher salary. Other veterinarians have told me they reduced their work hours due to the challenges of child care and home-schooling during the pandemic.

I am seeing more requests from veterinarians to work three days a week as opposed to four or five days. I am seeing more requests for flexible schedules or flexible hours. I have had more veterinarians ask me to find employers who will let them work until only 4 p.m. so that they can be home with their children after school. The employers are pushing back and saying they need someone to work until 5 or 6 or until the practice closes for the day. I saw a veterinarian turn down a job offer because the employer wanted her to work until 5 p.m. and she could work only until 4 p.m.

We want to hear from you: How has the COVID-19 emergency affected you, your practice or your veterinary business? Email editor Ken Niedziela at [email protected].

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