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Plot a career path in practice management

Networking, education and certification can help with professional advancement.

Plot a career path in practice management

Like the parade of preteens who shadow our doctors each summer, I too wanted to be a veterinarian at that age. Growing up in my parents’ practice, where my mother was the owning veterinarian, my father managed the business and I pitched in wherever needed, I experienced the realities of the field. And unlike many of our preteen observers, after seeing those realities, I still liked it.

During my senior year of high school, an in-depth career assessment test paired with a dazzling field trip to Eli Lilly’s headquarters suggested I had little in common with a typical doctor’s personality. My thinking shifted toward a career in veterinary pharmaceuticals.

After a couple of years of majoring in chemistry and one soul-searching summer of horse wrangling in the Rocky Mountains, I recognized that lab and corporate life also wasn’t a fit.

By the time I finished undergrad with a business degree, I had worked my way into a management position at a veterinary clinic. Soon after, I joined a growing veterinary hospital in suburban Charleston, South Carolina. I furthered my education by obtaining my MBA and CVPM, and for the past decade I have been happily building upon my career in veterinary practice management.

Got Plans?

What is your story? Where are you now and what do you hope to achieve in your working life?

If you are like me and hold a management role in a veterinary practice, your natural skill sets and career passions do not necessarily overlap with those of a veterinarian. For that reason and others, I am happy to see practices of all sizes carve out positions for managers to take on various responsibilities, from tackling daily fires to building a strategic hospital plan.

How much dedicated management a hospital can support financially is straightforward. Typical benchmarks for management pay, including that of the owner if she is paid for business tasks, is 3 to 5 percent of gross revenue. A practice could begin to justify and afford employment of a full-time practice manager once gross revenue reaches $800,000. Before then, hospitals typically call upon team leads and part-time managers to handle the most pressing daily issues.

At the other end of the spectrum, a practice surpassing $2 million in annual revenue creates an array of management responsibilities that is realistically greater than any one person can adequately address.

In a typical veterinary practice, a manager’s scope of responsibility and authority — coupled with her experience and credentials and the hospital size — helps to define an appropriate title and correlating salary range. The Veterinary Hospital Managers Association publishes my go-to salary resource for managers, veterinarians and support team members in VHMA’s biannual “Compensation and Benefits Survey.”

Managers and Administrators

Let’s look at three positions.

  • A veterinary office manager is often responsible for front-office administration, such as reception team supervision and training, accounts receivable, and client liaison. The office manager title is sometimes given to a team member serving as an assistant to the practice manager or hospital administrator. This person is under the direct supervision of upper management.
  • A veterinary practice manager generally has a broad range of responsibilities centered around business activities. Areas that the practice manager governs could include human resources, finance, marketing, law and ethics, operations, technology, facility maintenance and client services. The degree of access to practice data, the authority to uphold hospital standards and the autonomy to make decisions as permitted by administration or ownership varies widely and has a direct impact on a practice manager’s ability to influence business advancement and success.
  • A veterinary hospital administrator is a member of top management who has been given complete authority over business functions, hospital services and personnel. This person works in parallel with ownership or the board of directors. A hospital administrator’s role builds upon a practice manager’s responsibilities to include professional staffing, practice optimization and strategic planning and implementation. While this title could be given to a qualified manager of any practice size, it is often reserved for someone at a large operation with a hierarchy of administration.

Other Job Titles

Beyond these traditional titles, niche roles — human resources manager, bookkeeper, patient care manager — can be created for employees who have specific skill sets that line up with practice demands and financial resources. Non-DVM ownership of a practice is a possibility for entrepreneurial-minded managers looking for advancement, depending on their state’s regulations.

Outside of the hospital setting, experienced veterinary managers can find opportunities as a consultant, speaker or writer, or in the veterinary sales industry as a key account manager or in business development.

If advancement is your goal, here are three ways to get involved and get ahead:

  • Networking: Connecting with peers can be an excellent way to further your career. My involvement with VHMA and management groups, coupled with relationships I formed with sales reps and their managers, have led me to consulting jobs, speaking engagements and writing opportunities.
  • Education: From local meetings and national conferences to formal business degree programs, many avenues build upon your knowledge. I always find a pearl of wisdom in each lecture I attend, even if I have heard and read about the topic many times. Earning my MBA allowed me to more confidently and successfully pursue consulting ventures, and it could open the door to the corporate world should I pursue that path.
  • Certification: Becoming a certified veterinary practice manager (CVPM) challenges managers to elevate their skill sets while proving to an employer their knowledge base and dedication to the profession. Earning a CVPM requires a history of performing specific management duties as well as formal education, successful test completion and a commitment to continuing education. Like my MBA, my CVPM knocked down many career-advancement barriers. Roughly 500 managers hold this designation and are considered the elite of their field.

I have found purpose and passion within the field of veterinary management. Through community involvement, education and forward progress, I can see a lifetime of fulfillment in this profession. I hope you also are finding this to be true.

Take Charge columnist Abby Suiter is practice manager at Daniel Island Animal Hospital in Charleston, South Carolina.