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Understaffed? How to Stay Productive in the Vet Practice

Six ways to work smarter, not harder.


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A veterinary technician moved out of state when her husband’s job was transferred. A receptionist cut hours to be home with her new baby. Worse yet, you’ve had a vacant technician job for six months because you can’t find qualified candidates. The employee shortage has your team feeling overwhelmed and overworked. Try these solutions to work smarter when you’re short-staffed:

1. Have a morning huddle.

Before you unlock the front door and start answering phones, gather the morning crew. Review the schedule as a team to set priorities and define roles. A veterinarian or practice manager would go over today’s schedule, highlighting appointments for new clients and euthanasia, previewing the order of dental and surgical patients, and sharing updates on overnight patients. In 10 minutes, you can inform, prepare and inspire your team before the perspiration begins. 

2. Assign areas of responsibility. 

When you create work schedules, identify employees’ roles each day. Assigning technicians to specific areas each day will keep them focused on primary responsibilities and prevent doctors from playing “hoard the technician” games. Identify which technicians will cover outpatient exams, surgery, dentistry, laboratory, pharmacy or a combination.

If a technician knows it’s her dental day, she can collaborate with the veterinarian on the timing and order of procedures. You’ll use time efficiently if you plan when your dental patient will be ready for extractions with the completion of the veterinarian’s surgery. The doctor steps out of the surgical suite and rescrubs for the dental patient’s extractions. Meanwhile, the surgery assistant recovers the abdominal surgery patient. By coordinating your timing, you’ll have a graceful ballet rather than a roller derby.

I recommend rotating technicians through departments of outpatient exams, laboratory, pharmacy, surgery and dentistry so their skills stay sharp in all medical areas. If you have a designated dental technician, you risk losing practice income when she’s on vacation for a week and no one else can do procedures. Cross-training builds morale and your business.

3. Plan administrative time. 

As a receptionist, you need to check emails, respond to appointment and refill requests, and confirm upcoming appointments and surgeries. Some tasks you can quickly accomplish between calls and helping visiting clients, but others may require a block of time. Set a routine for your administrative time. If you need to check the clinic email three times a day, set task times such as 8 a.m., 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. Following a habit will ensure that emails are consistently checked and responded to promptly. The first and last two hours you’re open are the busiest times for most clinics, so call clients about overdue reminders and appointment confirmations midday.

As office manager, you work at the front desk and manage employees’ schedules, online store approvals, inventory and training. Doing managerial tasks while answering five incoming phone lines may prove challenging. Set aside time to wear your manager hat.

Schedule an administrative day on Wednesdays, completing tasks away from the front desk and out of uniform. Wearing business clothes instead of scrubs tells employees that you are the manager today, but you’re still dressed professionally if you need to dive in and help answer calls at the front desk. Another option is to set aside an hour each day when you step away from the front desk to complete management tasks. You might plan administrative time from 1 to 2 p.m., after receptionists have taken lunch breaks and busy afternoon appointments aren’t yet in full swing.

4. Create team checklists.

Make opening and closing checklists. Attention to detail makes positive first impressions for clients, so include “refresh beverage center,” “check parking lot for trash and pet waste,” and “clean front windows and doors.” Place checklists in a location where receptionists can always find them. Initial completed tasks and have the manager double-
check the list daily.

Technicians need checklists to maintain equipment, restock inventory, keep a clean treatment area and surgical and dental suites, make surgical packs, and more. Create procedural manuals with instructions and pictures. If a new hire starts tomorrow, he should be able to grab the notebook, follow the steps and complete the tasks.

5. Let clients request refills through your website, text or app. 

Receptionists will cheer when you eliminate 20 or more calls each day. Vitus Vet can create a mobile app branded to your practice that lets you accept refill requests as well as send push notifications. Use your existing business phone number to send and receive texts with Zipwhip. Print on prescription labels, “Refill this medication through our website, app or text 555-555-5555.” Let clients know about electronic refill options when they pick up medications. See my column last month on “Stop Clients’ Bad Habits of Emergency Refills” for more strategies.

6. Set admission and discharge appointments. 

At 8 a.m., five clients arrive to check their pets in for surgical and dental procedures. Two technicians scramble to admit patients, complete consent forms and answer clients’ questions. Three of the five clients grumble while they wait 20 minutes before they’re helped. How did this traffic jam happen? During confirmation calls, receptionists instructed pet owners to “drop off” between 8 and 9 a.m. Clients assumed this meant hand you the leash or cat carrier and go. Without admission appointments, you risk everyone showing up at once. Set admission times when you schedule procedures. Have complex cases check in first. This allows time for preanesthetic testing as well as longer recovery. (See the photo for a sample admission schedule.)

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Sample Admission Schedule 

Surgery admission appointments are 15 minutes. Use the technician column in your schedule for surgical and dental admissions, suture removals, nail trims and other services that technicians will provide. Surgery technicians will be responsible for admission appointments, while treatment technicians will do suture removals, nail trims, blood tests and other outpatient services.

When the client schedules a procedure, the receptionist would enter a specific check-in time and tell the client, “We have scheduled your pet’s dental procedure for Friday. Your admission appointment will be at 8 a.m. with the dental technician. Please allow 15 minutes to complete the admission forms and receive instructions on how we will care for <pet name>. We also will call you to confirm the procedure and email your paperwork one day in advance.”

Set discharge appointments at the time of admission. After paperwork is complete, the technician would tell the client, “Let’s schedule your discharge appointment after 4 p.m. today, when your pet will be ready to go home. You will meet with <technician or doctor name> for ___ minutes, who will explain the results of the procedure, medication instructions, wound care and answer your questions. Do you prefer 4:30 or 4:45 p.m. for your discharge appointment?” After the client responds, say, “I see that you prefer text notification when <pet name> wakes up, so we will send you a text and remind you of the discharge appointment at 4:30 p.m. If you have questions today, here is my business card so you can ask for me.”

Put discharge appointments in the technician column of the schedule. If a doctor will release the patient, put the appointment in the veterinarian’s schedule. Discharge appointments for routine procedures will take approximately 15 minutes. If a technician will discharge the patient, the veterinarian may want to call the client when the patient is recovered. Doctors should handle complicated medical or surgical discharges such as amputations because clients will have many questions. Budget 20 minutes for complex discharge appointments.

Setting discharge times lets doctors and technicians create home-care instructions, fill prescriptions and prepare the patient to go home. You don’t want an anxious client waiting in the lobby while you finish entering charges or removing a catheter.

Ask your team, “Why do we do it this way?” Look for opportunities to streamline processes and shave minutes that could add up to hours. When you work smarter, you’ll reduce stress while maintaining exceptional patient care and client service. Get more training in my one-hour CE credit webinar on “Ways to Increase Productivity When You’re Short-Staffed," which you can find here.


Wendy S. Myers owns Communication Solutions for Veterinarians in Castle Pines, Colo. She is a certified veterinary journalist and the author of “101 Communication Skills for Veterinary Teams.” You may reach her at wmyers@csvets.com or www.csvets.com.

Originally published in the March 2017 issue of Veterinary Practice News. Did you enjoy this article? Then subscribe today! 

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