Let us be clear: An associate veterinarian is a veterinarian who is NOT an owner of the practice. What do you need in an associate? The easy answer is, “a veterinarian.” But it takes much more than DVM behind the name to make an associate a successful part of any practice. Yes, they need to have all the qualities of a veterinarian: seeing patients, communicating with clients, performing medical procedures, etc. But what else do they need?
1. What Does a Good Associate Veterinarian Need? The Ability to Lead
Not only do they need the ability to lead, they HAVE to lead. No, they are not an owner of the practice, but because DVM follows their name, they are looked upon as a leader by the rest of the team. For those of you who find it easy to visualize an organizational chart, the associate is just below the owner, but typically above everyone else — except maybe the practice or hospital manager, depending on how things are set up. Essentially, all doctors are looked to for leadership in the practice. The tone of the work day is set by the doctors, regardless of their ownership in the practice. So they need to take their leadership role seriously.
2. A Good Associate Veterinarian Needs to be a Positive Role Model
Similar to leading (but slightly different), being a positive role model requires the associate to assess their own behavior and words before they act or speak, and to gauge their impact on others. In other words, the associates are always “on stage,” and the audience is just waiting to see if they forget their lines or come off completely out of character. The team is going to be watching. The team is going to gauge what is appropriate professional behavior by the behavior exhibited by an associate. The old adage “monkey see, monkey do” applies, and if the team sees the associate being cranky, disrespectful or dismissive of clients, the team members will think that type of behavior is OK for them too.
3. A Good Associate Veterinarian Must Stay Cool and Collected
Notice how these qualities — cool and collected — kind of seem similar, but each emphasizes a particular aspect of personality? That is by design, because the personality of the associate is imperative for the success of the team. Can they handle pressure? How do they respond when appointments start falling behind? How do they ask you to relay a message to the client who has called the 9th time that day? What do they say to the team member who inadvertently makes a mistake or two? Every doctor in the practice takes part in setting the mood and morale of the team.
4. An Associate Vet Must Play Well With Others
It is called a “team” for a reason, and that is because we all have a position to play. The best associates understand this, and move over for the technician to do their part, stay quiet to allow the receptionist to do their part and respect each person for the skill they bring to the team. Yet the best associates also pitch in: They clean a cage when no one else is available, they put their own appointment in the room in a pinch, they handle a mess in a hurry and they never feel like a job is “underneath” their qualifications.
5. An Associate Veterinarian Needs to be Part of Management
Being a leader also requires an associate to take part in the management of the practice and its people. This may not even be discussed in detail, but take for example the times when the associate is on duty, and there is no practice owner in the building. If there is an employee issue, a client complaint, a medical mistake, the associate is in charge of handling these situations. They may or may not actually have management duties in their job description and they may or may not make a certain percentage of their salary doing these management tasks, but they are assumed to be part of the package. There are very few situations, if any, where the associate can punt the problem and say “we’ll wait for the owner to comes in.”
Some scenarios need immediate attention by someone “in charge,” and by default this is often the associate. Even if there is a hospital or practice manager on the floor, they may have to seek out the associate’s input to be able to handle certain situations, particularly with clients and patients. If management duties were not discussed during the hiring process or subsequent training, be sure to ask now that you know you must!
Also be prepared for things to possibly change in the future. Management duties may be added to the associate’s task list, or perhaps the associate wants to consider buying into the practice or taking over the practice altogether. It is good to know what management will entail as you move toward that future career plan.
For veterinarians who are not practice owners, the DVM behind their name comes with a silent but assumed MBD as well: Management By Default. Being another doctor in the practice is a big responsibility, and not just to the clients and patients. Associates are typically more numerous in a practice then the practice owner(s), so in that regard their influence can even outweigh that of the owner. This is particularly true if the practice owner is headed toward retirement, cutting back on hours and letting the associates steer the ship most the time. Associates need to understand the role they will play in front of the team, and be prepared to set a positive tone and keep morale up while they carry out their doctor duties. The influence of associates is big, so be sure to make it positive!
The tricky thing is, there are many associates that do not KNOW they need to possess these qualities to be successful. It is up to the hiring person, either the practice owner or a manager in some cases, to ask about these qualities, explain their importance to the practice and even teach some of these qualities if needed. As with any position on the team, success is only assured when the expectations are explained upon hiring (or upon reading this article), training and mentoring provides the coaching needed, and consistent feedback is a part of everyday practice.