Clinics, Careers Look For Little Relief

Veterinary relief work is an increasing force in the veterinary field thanks to economic challenges and a change in attitudes.

Economic challenges and shifting attitudes among younger veterinarians are contributing to a steady evolution in the supply and demand equation surrounding relief veterinary work.

Ivette Nessim, DVM, manager of DC Relief Vets LLC, a relief services firm in the Washington, D.C., area, says she’s seen a general upward trend in demand despite the economic downturn. She says demand is driven by a shortage of veterinarians nationwide and an increase in female veterinarians who work part time in order to raise families.

She also notes that many full-time veterinarians frequently lament being overworked and underpaid, further driving demand for relief services.

Tiffany Lewis, DVM, a relief veterinarian operating in central Florida, agrees.

Finding a Relief Veterinarian

Relief veterinarians serve as high-profile team members while delivering care to patients. Thus, practices need to look for the same qualities in these employees as they would in a full-time veterinarian.

Christine Merle, DVM, a consultant with the Brakke Veterinary Practice Management Group and past president of the Association of Veterinary Practice Management Consultants & Advisors, says a good relief veterinarian comes prepared and ready to work.

“A good relief veterinarian has excellent communication skills both with staff and clients, is confident in their medical skills, completes accurate and legible medical records and reinforces the practice policies and standards,” she says.

Dr. Merle notes that relief veterinarians can be difficult to find, and many book far in advance. So she recommends building a relationship with two or three relief veterinarians who can be called regularly.

“Pay them competitively, book them well in advance, don’t cancel at the last minute, have good staff that supports them and, if possible, try them out for a day or two before you book them for longer engagements,” Merle suggests.

David McCormick, a consultant with Simmons & Associates Mid-Atlantic LLC in Boalsburg, Pa., says some clinics file away the letters they receive from relief doctors looking for work.

“It may be a year later before you dip into the file, but it helps as a place to start,” he says. “Some state VMAs maintain a list on their websites. The bulletin board at the state VMA meetings is also a good place to build your file of names for the future.”

She says demand for relief services is up because practice owners are having a harder time finding associate veterinarians to work for them.

“Despite the economy, I feel the demand for relief veterinary services is still pretty high,” Dr. Lewis says. “Practice owners and their associates still have to take vacations, continuing education and other sometimes unexpected leaves of absence.”

Demand for relief services isn’t a constant across the country. David Smallwood, chief manager and co-owner of VetSolutions LLC, a relief services firm serving the regions of Los Angeles and eastern Tennessee, has seen a slowdown this year. His customers are requesting less relief help, and no new clinics are coming on board as clients.  

“The overall economy has affected our clients’ bottom lines, and in return is affecting our business,” Smallwood says, noting that clinics are trying harder to fill hours with their own doctors. “Clients are also trying to find relief doctors on their own, bypassing our service, since they can potentially save on our service fee.”

Fluctuating Work Force

David Grant, DVM, president and founder of Relief Services for Veterinary Practitioners in Texas, says the economy may make relief services a more attractive option to some clinics.

“In the current economic climate, smart choices must be made to keep clinic revenues increasing and expenditures down,” he says. “Clinic owners realize that hiring a relief veterinarian is often the most cost-effective way to supplement their staff and increase productivity, without the huge expenditure of a full-time salary.” 

No reliable figures are available as to how many relief veterinarians are operating across the U.S. Regardless, the population of available relief veterinarians is constantly fluctuating. And not all veterinarians who call themselves relief veterinarians are truly available for relief work.

Smallwood estimates that about half of relief veterinarians have set part-time schedules with clinics, where they work as independent 1099 employees. He estimates that 20 to 30 relief veterinarians serve the Knoxville, Tenn., area.

Generally, Dr. Grant estimates that a city with a population of 3 million to 4 million people can support 30 to 40 relief veterinarians, some of whom work only a couple of shifts a week.

A Different Schedule

Many factors draw veterinarians to relief work. Michelle Smallwood, DVM, owner of Hardin Valley Animal Hospital in Knoxville, Tenn., says most veterinarians pursue relief work as a means of having a reduced and more flexible work schedule.

“This can be for a number of reasons, but starting a family is the most common,” she says.

Dr. Smallwood, co-owner of VetSolutions, says other motivating factors include a desire to test potential employers to find the right full- or part-time match, and the need for short-term employment without committing to becoming an employee.

Occasionally, what begins as a short-term solution evolves into an ideal career path. For example, Dr. Lewis has served as a relief veterinarian in central Florida for two years.

“I sort of fell into this niche of veterinary medicine between jobs,” she says. “It was only supposed to be temporary; however, I loved the freedom it gave me. I had not been able to attend a family reunion, Christmas or Thanksgiving with my family for about five years until I got into relief work.” 

Indeed, Dr. Nessim says relief work allows her to dictate her own schedule. 

“These days, people take whatever I can offer,” she says.

By April, Nessim had booked jobs through December. “The year is gone, and people are already asking when I will open the 2009 calendar.”

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