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Choose optimism

The veterinary profession is awash in change and opportunity. You should be excited to be part of this era.

Choose optimism
Optimism is about learning to see the positive and acting on the opportunities presented despite the negativity.
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I tell students every chance I get that there has never been a better time to be a veterinarian. I believe it.

Dr. Google, rising competition, Amazon, consolidation, increasing complexity of running a vet biz, struggle to get cats in the door, staff turnover, accounts receivable, compliance and grumpy clients — I get it. Painting a pessimistic picture is easy, but don’t. How one responds to any given situation is a choice.

The science is compelling: Optimists are more likely to succeed in the face of difficulty, be more successful in professional situations, and maintain higher levels of well-being and mental health during times of stress. Optimism is a choice. Choose optimism.

In no way do I want to discount the issues our profession faces. They must be addressed — the well-being crisis, the cost of veterinary education, the enormous number of pets not benefitting from veterinary care. That said, I still believe there’s never been a better time to be a veterinary professional. Call me naïve, call me a Pollyanna, call me blind to the negative. I would argue that optimism is not about being blind to the negative. Optimism is about learning to see the positive and acting on the opportunities presented despite the negativity.

In support of optimism, consider:

1. The Big Trends

Take a look at the data. Pet ownership is up, pet spending is up, pet lifespans are up, euthanasia is down. We’re experiencing record investments in the pet industry. The bottom line is, our profession is growing two to three times the rate of the rest of the economy.

2. The Pet Gen

Millennial pet spending now surpasses that of the baby boomer. Millennials are getting pets sooner and spending more on them. Millennials are arguably more bonded to their fur babies than any generation to date. Gen Z is showing similar characteristics.

3. Technology

We are on the doorstep of a technological revolution centered on supporting the pet/family/veterinary connection. In just a handful of years, we’ll benefit from a dramatically different tech-enabled relationship with the pet families we serve. Did you hear that? That’s the sound of current barriers to care beginning to crumble. Millennials will insist and we will deliver. Veterinary medicine’s adaptation of technology and telehealth must evolve to meet the needs of our pet families.

4. The Bond

Society has never had a better understanding of the value of family pets. We now recognize that grandma is happier and healthier when she has a cat companion. Our children experience fewer allergies and are more empathic when they have pet siblings. Human obesity’s nemesis is a simple dog walk; Uncle Jim recovers from his heart attack quicker. Simply put, the recipe for a long and happy life is to eat well, exercise and own a pet.

5. Economics

There are a ton of jobs for veterinary professionals today. If you don’t like your job, leave. Be professional, fulfill your contractual obligations, provide plenty of notice and leave. Great jobs are out there. Anecdotally, I reviewed a number of employment agreements for the recently graduated class of 2018. Job offers in the $80K, $90K and a few in the $100K range are the norm. Veterinary compensation is moving up finally.

6. Veterinary Academia

Have you looked at the new veterinary schools’ curricula? They are dramatically different (and better, in my opinion) than those most of us experienced. Competencies that most highly correlate with success outside of the ivy-covered halls are being stressed in new core curricula. One to note is communication training centered on dozens of simulated client encounters ranging from conflict to euthanasia to estimate presentation. Other required courses include leadership training, clinical skills labs and practice management. All are better preparing students for the veterinary world they are inheriting. There is a renewed focus on preparing confident and competent entry-level veterinarians. Oh, and by the way, the current crop of veterinary students is brilliant. The students are smart, idealistic, multitaskers, tech-savvy and team players. They think differently than my boomer generation, and I like it.

7. Public Esteem

Veterinarians continue to be among the most-admired professionals. People love us. They want to be us. This gives us a huge boost. I’ve had several opportunities to lobby in support of our profession. I thought that given our profession’s small size and even smaller wallets, my voice might not be heard. Boy, was I wrong. I found that legislators are eager to speak with veterinarians. Legislators get it. They like and own pets. And, as it turns out, their voters have pets, too. Politicians are not eager to get sideways with a profession that is held in such high regard by constituents.

8. Wellness

Both the American Animal Hospital Association and the American Veterinary Medical Association are doing tremendous work in providing awareness and tools to improve well-being. Vet schools now employ full-time counselors. Workplaces offer employee assistance programs. Professional conferences feature wellness tracks. Four-day work weeks with generous paid time off and sick days have become the norm. Perhaps most importantly, we’re beginning to understand that it’s OK to ask for help.

“Mommy, I Wanna Be a Vet When I Grow Up”

A good friend and partner in our WellHaven Pet Health group practice, John, tells a story that I’ll paraphrase. It’s not so optimistic to start with, so bear with me.

John is a business guy who fell in love with our profession many years ago. On his first day in veterinary medicine almost 20 years ago he put on a pair of scrubs and went to work as an assistant in a busy general practice. Toward closing, a hit-by-car case came rushing through the door. The bleeding German shepherd was held by a father trying to keep his emotions in check in front of his children. The owner thrust the dog into John’s arms, mistaking him for the vet. The vet quickly took control from John, calmed the client, assessed the patient and went to work.

Several hours later, John and the doctor were walking to their cars. John was reflecting on the amazing work he’d witnessed, the dedication, the intelligence and the emotional depth required to communicate with the client, treat the pet, direct the team and perform the necessary procedures. John was amazed and hooked for life on our great profession.

As they each turned to go to their cars that cold winter evening, they exchanged goodbyes. John noticed a sag in the doctor’s shoulders as she unlocked her car. John asked if she was OK. When she turned, she was sobbing and shared that this was the fourth night in a row she had missed both dinner and tucking her little girl into bed for the night. She went on to say that her daughter had expressed interest in becoming a vet just like Mommy but that she had reluctantly discouraged her daughter because of nights just like this one.

John was shocked, and he vowed right then that while he could never be a veterinarian, he would do everything he could to better support a more positive work-life balance. He had a vision to build and support practices that might have emergencies at closing time but that also would provide a hospital environment that embraced wellness, protected teams from burnout and strove to keep the childhood passion alive.

Fast-forward 20 years. Our WellHaven practice is opening a number of beautiful, new AAHA practices and purchasing remarkable hospitals. We’ve worked hard to create a workplace environment in which doctors and their teams are supported, empowered and encouraged to stay with our profession and practice for years to come. John now tells the story of a recent hospital opening during which several veterinarians mused that they would be proud if their children chose to follow in their footsteps.

I know that some in our field are not recommending the profession. It breaks my heart. Ours can be very demanding work, but the rewards are tremendous and promise to get even better in the years ahead. I recommend our profession to anyone who asks and to many who don’t.

Do you recall the words of brilliant philosophers Pooh and Piglet?

“What day is it?” asked Pooh.

“It’s today,” squeaked Piglet.

“My favorite day,” said Pooh.

There’s never been a better time to be a veterinary professional. Choose optimism.

Creative Disruption columnist Dr. Bob Lester is chief medical officer of WellHaven Pet Health and a founding member of Banfield Pet Hospital and the Lincoln Memorial University College of Veterinary Medicine. He serves on the North American Veterinary Community board of directors.

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