It’s always sunny in veterinary medicine

An optimist’s take on change and evolution in our profession

The changes in the veterinary industry, COVID requirements and clients under stress have caused physical and emotional pressure for everyone in the clinic. PHOTO COURTESY MONIQUERODRIGUEZ / ISTOCK / GETTY IMAGES PLUS
The changes in the veterinary industry, COVID requirements and clients under stress have caused physical and emotional pressure for everyone in the clinic.

If David Bowie’s eponymous song says anything about changes, it’s that they’re good for you. So it is, I’ll argue, in veterinary medicine. As one of my colleagues often observes, one day we’ll surely look back at once-rock solid veterinary policies, principles, and procedures only to find they’ve been proven obsolete or, worse, unmasked as antithetical to our Veterinary Oath. Yes, progress is a good thing!

Moreover, nothing is immune to change. Even Newtonian physics has gotten a makeover since its debut. But it’s not just our medicine, it’s everything about how we work, how our clinics run, and what our clients think. Even our patients have changed.

Come on, admit it, you never predicted you’d be spending so much time on little gargoyles with respiratory apparatuses less reliable than a McDonald’s straw, much less sharing ventilators with overwhelmed hospitals. (Who thought most specialty hospitals would have ventilators? Or even specialists?)

It’s not as if we didn’t know we’d face changes when we signed up for this profession. But few of us knew that so much would change so quickly. New tools, new tech, new training, new protocols, new expenses, new distribution alternatives, new competitors, and new pricing structures have followed the rapid shifts in client demand, student debt, online sales, payment product solutions, and corporate influence from all sides and at every level.

The result has been an industry that is almost unrecognizable from the one some of us experienced before the turn of the century. You know, the veterinary profession that once used “burnout” more as a slur against slackers and weed devotees than a clinical term cataloged in the DSM with an image of a veterinarian as poster child?

Indeed, we’ve changed. As a 1995 graduate, practice owner, and “burnout” alum who’s yet to pay off her debt can attest, it’s been a bumpy ride—one characterized by an accelerating trajectory and the occasional, unwelcome hairpin turn. Say anything about our profession over the past two decades, but never that it’s been boring.

The pandemic factor

Even so, nothing could have possibly prepared us for the adventures COVID has forced us to endure. On the one hand, COVID has further accelerated the adoption of pets as family members—a positive change as most of us see it. Argue about the role of social isolation and divisiveness all you want, but an increased reliance on pets is one healthy coping mechanism I think we can all get behind.

On the other, the sense of urgency and degree of attachment that comes with this development have made it hard for us to meet expectations given the limitations we’re laboring under.

Social distancing guidelines are undoubtedly indispensable to staying safe, yet they’re absolutely impossible to uniformly enforce. They are also inconveniently timed. Unfortunately, they have arrived just in time to upset a client base that’s more ill-disposed than ever towards accepting any separation gracefully.

Not only is everyone cranky (that just goes without saying and was doubly, true during the holidays and their concomitant COVID spikes), but many of our clients are simply not used to being separated from their pets after almost a year in lockdown. Most have already been separated from family members and may also be experiencing grief to varying degrees. Stir in the illness or death of a pet, and what once seemed a quotidian occupational hazard gets ratcheted up a few notches.

The trouble is this emotional turmoil in our clients doesn’t just trickle down, it gets mirrored—in real time—by us. It’s been especially hard to act like an adult in the room when you’ve just been yelled at, hung up on, one star-reviewed, or even sued by a client.

The average practice has also experienced near-calamitous degrees of disruption and dysfunction since the pandemic arrived. From the early days, when our teams reeled at the dizzying speed of operational change, we’ve become more adept at adopting new policies and procedures on the fly. Change has become a way of life for us. It has not stopped just because we’re in status limbus due to the virus’s tenacity.

Make no mistake: our practices have seen better days. We may not have seen a drop in revenues (quite the opposite for most), but profitability has plummeted as we’ve struggled to cope with inventory control, employee shortages, communication challenges, and infrastructure investments, among other incremental expenses. And, whether we like to admit it or not, quality of care has also suffered. Record-keeping has been comparatively dismal (especially at first), client communication has been fraught (to say the least), and employee morale looks more like a-fib than a steady heartbeat.

To be sure, some practices have had a harder time of it than others. Some of it has been circumstantial, more dependent on the impact of COVID in the community and the degree to which it directly affected our teams’ health than with our innate ability to handle change. But in other cases, team adaptability has been an overriding issue. Some of us are just not as good at riding the change wave as others.

For my part, it’s been an existential struggle characterized by one overriding question: How do we prepare our practices for managing change when we’re suffering from the same stress our clients are under?

Now, that’s the million-dollar question! While answering it could fill another column (nay, a whole book), this shall suffice in the meantime: It has nothing to do with how dispassionately we treat our clients or how smart we are at managing people and pumping up profitability. Instead, it all comes down to compassion and communication. After all, whenever we let stress overwhelm empathy, we lose sight of the endgame. And communicating that goal is what makes us effective managers and good veterinarians.

How do we keep it together long enough? Taking a step back for long enough to make clearheaded decisions seems to have helped, on the whole. I won’t lie. Taking this step back has been the most difficult aspect of managing change in my own practice. I’ve been that flailing employee at times, allowing unbidden emotion and overwhelming stress to cloud my judgment.

This has never been more true than during periods of intense social upheaval, like the one we’re currently living through. But compassion and communication aren’t always enough. Having hope and believing that things will get better are absolutely intrinsic to managing change. You can’t execute on a vision of a better practice without believing it’s achievable. Indeed, the more you believe it the better you’ll lead.

Yes, change is best suited to fundamentally optimistic people. Given the pace of change in veterinary medicine over the past few decades, it’s seems obvious that veterinarians who’ve lived it have made it this far because we’re positive thinkers, at heart. In fact, I would go so far as to say that if you don’t share Mr. Bowie’s sunny take on change and progress, this probably isn’t the best profession for you.

Patty Khuly, VMD, MBA, owns a small animal practice in Miami and is a passionate blogger at drpattykhuly.com. Columnists’ opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Veterinary Practice News.

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