Where Have All the Staff Gone?

July 6, 2021
Dr. Holly Sawyer

How many veterinarians can relate to carrying the Frenchie to treatment for abdominal rads, blood work, and SQ fluids, only to walk into a boiling cauldron of tech activity with no help in sight? How many veterinary technicians can relate to the CSR telling them to grab the pet from the parking lot, the pharm tech asking them to unlock the controlled drug cabinet for hydrocodone, the treatment timer going off for the Bichon’s 2:45 PM glucose draw, and the fuming vet staring them down because no one has figured out how to grow an extra set of hands? 

Let’s swivel to the CSRs, who were inundated with phone calls before the clinic even opened and have been fielding client complaints ever since…about waiting a half hour in the car or scheduling Fluffy’s appointment two weeks away or charging so much when owners have zero perceived value for the care provided. Enter the practice managers, who survey the lovely landscapes of their veterinary domains and see only a destructive churn. 

This paints the picture of veterinary private practice on a hard—shall I say normal?—day. But have one member call in sick (or up and quit), and things get exponentially harder. 

In a profession that attracts perfectionists, nobody wants to do a mediocre job with life and death on the line. But if you are pulled too many directions at once, you are bound to make medical errors, get injured, or just plain burn out. It is only a matter of time until the next person decides the stress isn’t worth it and leaves the team that much deeper in the hole.

Where have all the staff gone? 

A [recent AVMA census] [hyperlink 1] of veterinarians paints a bleak picture of DVM shortages now and in the future. In 2018, most states averaged 1 vet per 1000 to 1500 housing units. That is scary, especially when you realize how many households have more than one pet. To frame the problem another way, 113,394 actively licensed vets (in 2018) were serving the same number of families as 953,695 actively licensed physicians (in 2016). 

In addition, veterinary students are graduating older and will face shorter careers, while a whole cadre of baby boomers is retiring. Will the 3750 US citizens graduating vet school each year be enough to handle the pet ownership explosion we see in our modern society? These DVM shortages are even more critical in the large animal sphere. An equine veterinary friend of mine admitted, “We are a dying breed.” 

But enough about the veterinarians. Let’s talk about the support staff, who make up [70% of the veterinary workforce] [hyperlink 2]. The average career of a registered technician is 5 years. These are highly motivated, skilled professionals who have invested time and resources into arduous training. Why do they walk away? Low pay, minimal benefits, physical injury, skill underutilization, and bonafide work overload top the list. Veterinary assistants and CSRs face many of those same pressures with even lower pay. And let’s face it, the CSRs are the frontline troops who take the brunt of client dissatisfaction. You can only hold out so long before the toll simply isn’t worth it anymore.  

Instead of staring into the abyss of workforce shortages, the question we should be asking is: 

How do we build our staff into a healthy family unit that stays together through thick and thin? 

I like to mull particularly rich words in my mind and see if I understand them by defining them myself. Intimacy is one such word I’ve self-defined. Tell me if you agree or disagree.

Intimacy: n. the state of being bound to another by uniquely shared experience. 

Much like the 101st Airborne’s Band of Brothers, our veterinary teams are in the trenches with each other, and no one else knows what that is like except them. That’s what I call intimacy! It is time to nurture team connection by building bonds with each other socially, outside of work. By mentoring. By encouraging professional development. By knowing the individuals well enough to leverage their singular skills, increase profitability, and improve compensation. 

The AVMA offers a [Team Retention online CE module] [hyperlink 3] that teaches clinics how to institute training and wellness practices so staff feels valued and trusted. Another aid to work wellness is bringing in reserve troops through GuardianVets’ virtual CSR service. You can also dramatically streamline communication between DVMs, techs, or CSRs and clients through the GuardianVets app’s secure text service or telemedicine platform. 

Final relief is in sight. All you have to do is reach out for the friend who’s got your back. 

For more information on how GuardianVets can lighten your load, contact us at LINK. 

[hyperlink 1] https://www.avma.org/javma-news/2019-07-15/census-veterinarians-finds-trends-shortages-practice-ownership

[hyperlink 2] http://www.natvpu.org/uploads/5/9/5/2/59529767/final_report_pablo_perez_ruiz__1_.pdf

[hyperlink 3] https://axon.avma.org/local/catalog/view/product.php?productid=45

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