The veterinary profession has changed a lot over the last year. Most notably, the profession has experienced a boom in business, primarily from increased pet sales.
But with business doing better than ever, what does this mean for practices?
The added workload may have been beneficial for their bottom line, but the same cannot be said for the well-being of their staff. Six months into the lockdown, three-quarters of veterinarians were very or quite concerned about burnout within the profession, whilst 45% of veterinarians were concerned about stress and burnout in themselves1.
Therefore, it is imperative to ask what can be done to prevent burnout in veterinary medicine, without sacrificing care quality?
Experiencing burnout in veterinary medicine? Click here to listen to Dr. Ivan Zak’s journey from burnout to breakthrough.
Strategically Controlling Work Volume to Decrease Burnout in Veterinary Medicine
A ‘master theory’ we are actively exploring is that general practice in veterinary medicine is entering a new phase. The old model is irretrievably broken and something new is needed.
This hypothesis is based on the following macro trends:
1. The knowledge load and minimum level of acceptable practice have increased in veterinary care2.
2. The perceived risks of failure are higher due in part to the mass adoption of social communication technologies3.
3. The demand for service was outstripping the ability to safely provide it before the pandemic4.
4. Pet ownership has increased further post pandemic5.
5. A myopic focus on technical skill development rather than non-clinical skill advancement has left the existing workforce more vulnerable to social stressors and burnout6.
This means the complexity and chaos of the environment are wreaking havoc with the next generation of vets’ ability to cope. They are voting with their feet and are leaving or actively considering leaving in droves.
A situation that in our eyes looks like a significant existential problem, not just a blip.
Those who graduated twenty or more years ago may be howling in despair at this premise, but the evidence is there for all to see.
So what can we do to avoid being ship-wrecked by this perfect storm? Practice managers have at their disposal several strategies that can and must be used to manage the chaos and complexity within veterinary practice:
-New client screening processes
-Work volume controls
-Supply & Demand Pricing
When planning in these areas, leaders should begin with the end in mind by asking:
‘What do I want to achieve with these changes?’ Having clear objectives will help guide the decisions that follow.
Build A New Client Screening Process
Screening your new clients can be a good way of maintaining sustainable workflows.
Whilst some busy clinics are opting to close the books, strategically, this is a blunt tool that will turn both good and bad clients away.
Instead, clinics could implement a pre-registration process for new clients. This ‘pre- registration’ form would theoretically have a list of questions that clients would fill out before booking an appointment. Ideally, the questionnaire should filter out ‘undesirable’ clients.
What is classed as ‘undesirable’ is largely subjective to each clinic. However, our suggestion is to use a system to filter out bad-fit clients that are not well aligned with the mission or values of the practice. You know the ones… they say no to your advice or guilt trip you for having to charge for your service.
Such a selective approach is contrary to the ‘never say no’ strategy historically taken by practices. But consider how you’ll feel when your best clients leave because they cannot get an appointment due to the influx of average clients during the lockdown. This is the real disaster.
Being selective as a tactic will not only help open up or maintain sufficient client capacity but will also increase the quality of the database.
As a consequence, the work satisfaction for staff will improve as grumpy ‘bad fit’ clients are weeded out. Ultimately this will reduce pressure, improve profits and remove a major driver of burnout in veterinary medicine7.
Want to learn more about managing burnout in veterinary medicine? Click here.
Implement Work Volume Controls
Instituting work volume controls is another powerful lever to pull for both the functioning and wellbeing of veterinary staff.
Introducing an on-the-day booking system so some appointments are available each day for urgent care can be a good way to artificially control workflow.
Furthermore, having caps on certain services (such as the number of operations the clinic can pre-book each day) could be beneficial as it leaves room for the inevitable walk-ins and emergencies that show up each day.
The risk here is that you extend waiting times and also potentially reduce top-line daily revenue, so it’s probably not a great long-term option. Increasing capacity through hiring more staff is the obvious antidote, but the current (and likely future) lack of vets and nurses makes this a challenging option.
So it’s a useful short-term, pressure-abating measure.
Such a move linked to an intentional improvement in client quality (strategy one) is a way to generate a higher yield per client and hence maintain your profit under more sustainable conditions.
Remodeling Your Service
Adapting service-market fit (aka remodeling your service) can help practices focus on the services and clients that create the most value. Narrowing your focus is going to make things easier to manage. Examples of this abound in veterinary medicine with ongoing market fragmentation as bits of what were considered core general practice services being carved off each year.
It is arguably far better to own a niche and deliver a much better service in one vertical than be average in many.
As a first step, you might consider what are your strengths and what are your weaknesses. Then what you might do more of and what you might do less of. The obvious risk is that you have to be certain that as you cut services back, you can replace lost revenue in one category with the same of more revenue in another.
Switch Up Your Pricing
Currently, there is plenty of demand for veterinary services, but simply not enough supply to meet those needs.
Typically, when this imbalance in supply/demand occurs, the market realigns itself by driving up the price of those desired services.
However, vets can be reluctant to do this due to in-built ethical reasoning, and instead, opt to continually take on clients despite their limited capabilities for the same fees. This, we suggest, is a mindset issue that partly explains why veterinarians lag behind professional colleagues in other industries when it comes to financial rewards.
One approach would be to simply implement ‘surge pricing’ where all prices rise to stifle demand while improving margin. Clinics could also selectively and methodically choose what prices go up and down.
Although price increases will inevitably upset a few clients, practices are far better off discouraging those ‘low value’ clients to get better ones. Anecdotal reports from practices and professionals we work within Australia (where supply & demand mismatch issues seem particularly acute) suggests that clients are not balking at the doubling in cost for an ‘on the day’ exam. The same seems to be true for several across-the-board price hikes.
There is undoubtedly an ethical issue to consider – the risk of low-income pet owners being ‘priced out’ of veterinary care. But we suggest that this can and will be addressed by new entrants who spot a gap in the market for a low-cost, no-frills service.
Leaders who feel bad about price raises should consider the costs of inaction on their (likely exhausted) veterinary team. What will feel worse, turning a couple of clients off your service, or losing another vet or nurse? Each loss is another step to a tipping point where there is complete collapse inability to serve clients.
Whilst many clinics are struggling under the pressure of this unprecedented veterinary demand, the influx of revenue from these clients has left many leaders scratching their heads with difficult decisions to make.
Doing nothing, while tempting from a profit perspective, risks team burnout. In this article, we’ve outlined some options available to help create a win-win for your practice, your clients, and your team.
Some of these strategies will (inevitably) frustrate some. But if practices can attract clients that share their values, and are willing to pay for their services this will be a small price to pay for a sustainable future.
Whatever you decide, remember that the prevention of burnout in veterinary medicine should be a priority for every leader. Happy teams deliver better medical care, generate a better workplace culture, and produce better profits.
Veterinary leaders looking for more guidance on how to run their clinic should check out the ‘Leadership: From the Experts Mouth’ eBook. The eBook explores the five commonalities of great leaders, offering general tips and tricks for practice management.
This is a complimentary resource, so don’t miss out!
Download it here.
1- ‘Report of the Voice snapshot survey on Covid-19: 6 months on from ….’ 7 Oct. 2020, https://www.bva.co.uk/media/3780/voice-covid-survey-2020-results.pdf. Accessed 6 Apr. 2021.
2- ‘Co-Produced Care in Veterinary Services: A Qualitative Study of UK ….’ https://www.mdpi.com/2306-7381/7/4/149. Accessed 30 Apr. 2021.
3- ‘72% of vets fear reputational damage from negative online reviews ….’ 12 Apr. 2018, https://www.vetsurgeon.org/news/b/veterinary-news/posts/72-of-vets-fear-reputational-damage-from-negative-online-reviews. Accessed 30 Apr. 2021.
4- ‘Vets see demand soar due to pandemic puppies, more time at home ….’ 26 Feb. 2021, https://www.bizjournals.com/bizwomen/news/latest-news/2021/02/vets-see-demand-soar-due-to-pandemic-puppies.html?page=all. Accessed 30 Apr. 2021.
5- ‘Households ‘buy 3.2 million pets in lockdown’ – BBC News.’ 12 Mar. 2021, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-56362987. Accessed 30 Apr. 2021.
6- ‘Evaluation of the Impact of the Professional Development Phase in ….’ https://www.rcvs.org.uk/document-library/evaluation-of-the-impact-of-the-professional-development-phase/. Accessed 30 Apr. 2021.
7- ‘Investigation of burnout syndrome and job-related risk factors in ….’ 16 Dec. 2019, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31840933/. Accessed 7 Apr. 2021.