Jackie Brown is a former veterinary assistant who writes for pet and veterinary industry media. She is a contributing writer for National Geographic’s “Complete Guide to Pet Health, Behavior and Happiness,” a contributing editor at Dogster and Catster magazines, and the former editor of numerous pet magazines. Contact her at jackiebrownwriter.wordpress.comRead Articles Written by Jackie Brown
Whether you’re a solo practitioner in desperate need of a vacation or a practice manager dealing with an associate veterinarian’s sudden medical leave, hiring a relief veterinarian may feel like a daunting task, particularly if it’s your first time. The first thing to know is that finding a relief veterinarian may take longer than expected.
“Start looking before the person is even gone,” said Elise Burns, operations manager at VetIQ Staffing, a Dallas-based agency. “Finding a veterinarian is usually a lengthy process. Many people tell me they have been looking for a veterinarian for eight months but couldn’t find anyone. I once had someone tell me they had been looking for a year.
“Veterinarians don’t really apply to jobs online, and they’re not superactive in LinkedIn,” she added.
Burns recommends pursuing many different avenues simultaneously rather than trying one thing at a time.
Christine Ortner, DVM, DABVP, owner of Cascade Summit Animal Hospital in West Linn, Oregon, asks other practice owners when she is looking for a relief vet.
“Just like for our own clients, word of mouth is very important,” Dr. Ortner said. “If I cannot find anyone through referral, the next place I go is the local veterinary association newsletter.”
Another option is using a hiring agency. Such companies can find and screen potential candidates based on the specific needs of a hospital. They also take care of all the legal paperwork.
“The right organization is going to have a network that a private practice owner is not going to have,” said Stith Keiser, CEO and director of client experience at Blue Heron Consulting in Pullman, Washington. “If you’re trying to run a hospital day to day, it can be hard to slow down enough to screen people effectively. Instead of having to read through a bunch of resumes or talk to a bunch of people on the phone who aren’t the right fit, an agency can give me a short list of candidates, which is pretty valuable.”
Never underestimate the importance of personality. Choosing a relief doctor who is a good fit with your clinic’s culture and client base is key.
“That relief veterinarian is now the face of the hospital,” Keiser said. “It’s important to screen relief veterinarians based on the mission and vision of the hospital so you are not presenting a professional who has a different set of values or mission than the hospital does.”
Burns has spoken with people who had bad experiences with relief vets.
“If one relief veterinarian comes in for a day and isn’t the right fit and clients are unhappy, those clients remember,” she said. “They might only come in once or twice a year. If they aren’t happy with the experience they have with a relief veterinarian, it can just ruin the clinic and their reputation for a long time.”
Dr. Ortner noted that personality can be difficult to assess in a typical interview.
“If you need relief several times per year, create a list of the relief vets you like,” she said. “A working interview is the best way to establish that list. Hire the relief vet for one day when you are in town and can be available if something comes up that requires your attention. Even better, schedule the relief vet for a day when you are doing surgery all day so you are around and can see how things are going.”
Interviewing candidates for any job is an art form. When hiring a relief veterinarian, you must evaluate many different aspects of the candidate, from clinical skills and medical philosophy to personality and work style.
“I talk to them about their medical philosophy,” Keiser said. “Everybody says they practice gold-standard, progressive medicine, but that looks 50 different ways in different hospitals. I want to know how it looks [to the candidate]. I also ask how they prefer their staff to be utilized. Different hospitals do it differently — there’s no right or wrong — but if I have a relief veterinarian who is used to a highly leveraged staff, and I have my doctors placing catheters, that doctor is going to be thrown off their game.”
Both clinical and nonclinical skills are equally important.
“You shouldn’t have to sacrifice one for the other,” Dr. Ortner said. “I try to have a very candid conversation about their style of medicine. Are they more concerned about being thorough or keeping the invoice down for the client? Neither one is wrong, but the style of medicine needs to match the practice.”
Wage negotiation is somewhat different when hiring a relief veterinarian versus an associate.
“Relief vets cost more than permanent associates per day,” Dr. Ortner said. “They have high daily rates and often don’t produce as much because some clients want to wait to see the regular vet. For short-term relief, the practice owner has to be willing to accept the loss. For longer-term relief, the relief vet should be paid as an associate.”
To figure out what you can afford to pay, do a little math.
“Know what your doctors are producing per day and what your breakeven is per day,” Keiser said. “You can track average doctor transactions or average client transactions, but at the end of the day I can’t pay someone $1,000 if, as a veterinarian, I don’t even produce $1,000 a day.”
Although many relief veterinarians work for an hourly rate, Keiser has seen some who will take a percent of production.
“It’s more risky for them, but as a practice owner I’d rather pay somebody a percent of production,” he said. “If I keep the books full and my team leveraged, I’ll be able to make more in an ethical way by having somebody there on production.”
Hiring a relief vet is a time-consuming and sometimes stressful process. Once you have someone you like, create an environment that’s conducive to them sticking around. Prep your staff members so they are ready to help the relief doctor make a smooth transition.
“It can be scary for the relief vet going in, especially if it’s a one-vet practice and they’ve never been to this clinic before and they don’t know any of the staff,” Burns said. “Appoint someone in the office, whether it’s a receptionist, a practice manager or a lead technician, to be the point person for the relief veterinarian and guide them through that first day or that first week.”
Relief vets can sometimes feel like outsiders. Remind the staff that this person is important to the clinic’s success, even if he or she won’t be working there full time.
“Acceptance is big,” said Zachary Reynolds, DVM, a full-time relief veterinarian with VetIQ Staffing. “It’s a good feeling when the staff just accepts you into a hospital like you’ve been working there all along. You practice good medicine and the rest just finds its place.”
Scheduling is another consideration.
“You want a well-oiled machine in terms of appointment times so a doctor can come in and be a doctor,” Keiser said. “Avoid a lot of block-offs in the middle of the day, or scheduling appointments too short or too long.
“Veterinarians are uniquely qualified to do three things: diagnose, prescribe and treat,” he said. “If I have a relief doctor doing anything but those three things, I’m wasting their skill set, and I’ve found that the really good ones don’t want their skills set wasted.”
Hiring a relief veterinarian is something many practitioners will have to do at some point in their career. If possible, initiate the search early.
“Finding relief when you are in a pinch is not easy,” Dr. Ortner said. “It’s important to hire relief and get that list going before you really need it.”
If you have a general idea of when you may need help, give your relief veterinarian a heads-up well ahead of time.
“The really good ones book up,” Keiser said.
“The earlier I can let someone know I need them, the more likely I am to get them,” he said. “I think it’s more than fair to them because they’re not sitting there wondering how they’re going to fill their books.”
Laws and regulations that apply to relief veterinarians vary from state to state, but in most places they are considered independent contractors. If you use a staffing agency, the company will take care of the legal issues. If you hire on your own, speak to an attorney in your state to ensure you do things the right way.
“Relief vets should not work regularly at any practice and should be put on payroll as an associate as soon as possible if their work will be regularly scheduled,” said Christine Ortner, DVM, DABVP, owner of Cascade Summit Animal Hospital in West Linn, Oregon. “Several practices, including mine, were audited by the state employment department a few years ago. Having several independent contractors that year was a red flag. Luckily, I was able to prove that they were relief vets and not regularly scheduled employees.”