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Have a sound strategy when trying to recruit a veterinarian to a rural practice.

Help wanted

Mayberry or Midtown? Many veterinary college graduates find themselves at this intersection as they choose their career path.

Factors that influence them to accept a first job in a rural practice are the hospital’s atmosphere, location, caseload, and the applicant’s urban or rural background. Other considerations are the quality of mentorship, the condition of the facilities and equipment, and the potential for practice ownership. More than half of new graduates return to the same community type as the one where they grew up.

But many choose not to stay in rural practice; they change jobs after one year, which can be especially disappointing given the time spent to recruit them. The rigors of emergency duty, a lack of time off and feeling isolated in a small, quiet community affording few social options are significant reasons that young veterinarians leave rural practice. Add to that the lack of job opportunities for spouses with professional degrees and there’s discontent brewing.

Stirring the pot is the burden of student debt and cost-of-living challenges that new veterinarians may not have considered: life and property insurance, retirement savings, and child rearing. The possibility of making more money somewhere else — somewhere with more options — starts looking like a reasonable solution.

Feeling the Pain

Gail Gibson, VMD, president of the North American Veterinary Community, knows firsthand about the challenge of recruiting and retaining veterinarians.

“As an owner of a small animal veterinary hospital in central Maine for 29 years, I can say with certainty that hiring veterinarians to move into a rural area has been the biggest challenge of our operation,” Dr. Gibson said. “Even as we’ve tried to entice applicants with above-average salary, four-day work weeks, paid health insurance, vacation and holiday pay, a retirement plan, as well as housing, we have been mostly unsuccessful.

“We’ve tried to analyze why this trend continues — first by looking inward — but we have come up with no good way to increase the likelihood that veterinarians will apply.”

Dr. Gibson and her team at Animal Medical Clinic in Skowhegan, Maine, are doing all the right things. They run a well-equipped practice — ultrasound, endoscopy, digital X-ray — and set high standards. Most staff members have been together for years. They emphasize the region’s beauty and safety as well as the recreational opportunities, low cost of living and community.

“We’ve tried eliminating emergency call, paying for continuing education, having employee appreciation days, engaging in community service projects, and yet we can’t convince veterinarians that we would give them a wonderful opportunity to be the veterinarian of their dreams,” Dr. Gibson said.

Build on What Works

Since there’s no magic potion for recruiting and retaining key employees, how can the rural practice owner maximize what is possible? You always give your best effort and feel responsible for making things better so that the business is profitable, animals receive excellent treatment and employees are happy.

Consider integrating some of the ideas below into your business. They sound idealistic because they are. Continuous improvement is the goal. These are things you want to become known for so that new graduates find you instead of the other way around.

  1. Fine-tune and oversee financial management of the hospital so more resources can be made available for salaries, benefits, training and reinvestment in the practice.
  2. Try to provide more time off for employees during slow times. Be more flexible in time away from the office so staff members can attend family activities or pursue personal interests. Encourage employees to get involved in the community, and make it easier for them to succeed in becoming leaders in their own realm. It’s important that your employees feel a sense of belonging within the rural community.
  3. Become involved with veterinary school externship experiences so students get a taste of rural practice for one to four weeks.
  4. Work reasonable hours. Train nonemergency clients to not call after hours. Set boundaries and respect them as best you can.
  5. Commit to an efficient and effective environment so employees can be proud of their workplace. Keep up to date with technology, client database management, and new drugs and procedures. Make sure your equipment and vehicles are dependable.
  6. Refine your leadership skills. There are very few born leaders; a little tweaking of any natural talent can help a lot. Talk to your team to get their suggestions. Ensure that personnel and client problems are addressed appropriately and quickly.
  7. Brush up on how to be an effective mentor or coach to your new veterinarian. It’s not hand-holding; it’s an evolving, customized process that can expedite training, understanding and job satisfaction.
  8. Take good care of your well-being. If the practice is led by a person who is depressed and frustrated, the attitude permeates the work environment. It’s contagious. And unhealthy. If you are burned out, what would it take for you to fall in love with your practice again?

Judy Gray is president of CEO on Call in Tallahassee, Florida. She served as interim CEO of the North American Veterinary Community in 2012-13.

Helpful resources

  • The federal Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program — http://bit.ly/2rKcjFI — provides loan forgiveness to veterinarians who commit to serving in designated veterinary shortage areas. The program incentivizes doctors to serve in areas where demand for veterinary care of livestock animals exceeds capacity.
  • Many veterinary organizations offer online job banks where open positions may be posted. Google “veterinary jobs.”
  • The American Veterinary Medical Association’s “2017 Report on Veterinary Markets” notes that the amount of tightening observed in the veterinary job market varies by location. A geographic disparity in the application-to-jobs ratio points to a maldistribution, a phenomenon that the report suggests may, in part, be attributed to veterinarians’ wish to return home to establish a career. Find the report and others at http://bit.ly/2snvnuI.
  • The American Association of Bovine Practitioners will solicit applications later this year from recent food animal veterinary graduates for 2018-19 Next Generation Practice Analysis Workshop grants. The program is designed to relieve veterinarian shortage situations and support veterinary services. Preference will be given to veterinarians practicing in or adjacent to Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program areas. The workshops provide practical tools that can improve the profitability and sustainability of rural veterinary practices. More details are available at www.aabp.org/next_gen.
  • Check conference schedules to look for workshops on veterinary practice analysis. Topics may range from budgeting and cash-flow evaluation to practice valuations and assessing client needs.