Start your year with some practice soul-searching

While an inventory can be painful, it can also transform our personal and professional lives

How has coronavirus changed your perspective and practice?
How has coronavirus changed your perspective and practice?

I don’t think anyone reading this will be sorry 2020 is over. From shutdowns to shortages, curbside to telemedicine, this will always be the year COVID changed everything, including how we practice veterinary medicine.

While the pandemic is far from over—in fact, it’s worse than ever as of this writing—the start of a new year has led me to reflect on the impact this novel coronavirus has already had on our lives as veterinarians and practice owners.

A look back

Before the pandemic, I was on a hamster wheel of activity with the bearings in danger of seizing. I was on track to hit five million frequent flyer miles and the highest level of hotel reward points by year’s end. I was driven, literally and figuratively, to spread the Fear Free message.

Once COVID triggered a hard stop to travel and even the simple diversion of shopping or dining in our small town, I suddenly found myself with the (sometimes mixed) blessing of time. It took me quite a while to decompress from my former frantic pace, and I confess I didn’t enjoy the process.

At Fear Free, we threw ourselves into our educational mission, providing free online CE for both our members and pet professionals multiple times a week. At the hospital where I normally practice, we focused on finding ways to serve our patients without putting our teams and clients at risk. We sought information on the danger of COVID to and from pets.

We watched as animal shelters shut down and turned to their communities to foster and adopt pets in numbers never before seen. I fielded constant media inquiries about the virus’s impact on animals and the veterinary field. I may have been stuck at my desk, but in many ways, I was as busy as ever.

But as our family, the veterinary profession, and our community moved past that initial frantic response, so did I.

I began to see time as a resource instead of a ticking clock: Time to get to know my wife at an even richer, deeper level. Time to refresh my faith and shed some unwanted pounds. Time to take stock of myself as a veterinarian. Time to get back to nature on the lake, hiking trails, while riding horses and ATVs. Spending time with aged relatives on long drives, and being with our granddaughter, Reagan. Time to think. 

Slowing down, taking stock

With all the time I normally spent racing from place to place, I caught up on some reading, starting with an article by author former Wall Street Journal columnist Morgan Housel about the questions we should not only ask ourselves, but answer.

So I did some searching of my own soul, and these questions were the ones that demanded answers. I think they’ll resonate for every veterinarian practicing in this insane year we’ve just lived through. Here they are:

1) While we may differ politically, we’re all the same when it comes to how much we love and depend on our pets. How can we use pets to help us bridge the gap and come together as Americans?

2) Why in the world are we still underdiagnosing and undertreating pain in pets even though we have taken an oath to prevent or relieve animal pain and suffering?

3) Why do we keep talking about utilizing technicians/nurses to the top of their degree, rather than engaging them like a physician’s assistant in human medicine?

4) What are we missing by not providing sustained professional development and a forward career path for veterinary team members?

5) What steps must we take to make sure we give veterinary team members’ pets the best exam, diagnostics, treatment, and hospitalization the practice has to offer? What will it take for us to treat them not like second-class clients, but VIPs with pets?

6) Is it possible we would gain more than we’d lose, or even more than we can imagine, by offering extra paid vacation time and more flexible work hours to our team members? Would we see greater staff retention, morale, and productivity? Are we brave enough to give this a try?

7) Who on our team has the right answers, but is usually ignored because they don’t speak up, speak out, or aren’t articulate? Are we missing a vital perspective because of what is ultimately an issue not of substance, but of communication style? How can we help that team member’s voice be heard?

8) What have I not personally experienced that leaves me naïve to how something works? How can I remedy that gap?

9) Which of my current views would I disagree with if I were born a different gender, race, religion, nationality, or generation? How would that impact the way I structure my practice or offer care to animals?

10) What ideas about myself or our profession do I desperately want to be true, so much so that I think it’s true even when it’s clearly not?

11) What steps do I take routinely knowing all they do is to reinforce my own bias?

12) What looks unsustainable, but is actually a new trend we haven’t understood or accepted yet?

13) What has been true for decades that will stop or has stopped working, but will drag along stubborn adherents because it had such a long track record of success?

14) What has seemed impossible that—if it were possible—would dramatically change my business and benefit everyone involved?

15) If I didn’t charge for my services, supplies, and products, what would I recommend for every pet I see as a veterinarian?

16) Are there products or procedures with limited benefit that I recommend anyway because I’ll make more money, knowing a much cheaper Plan B would give most of the same benefits?

17) How many patients and clients do I see who would be better off seeing someone else? Am I necessarily the right veterinarian for every pet who comes into my exam room?

18) Do I do things that make clients who can’t afford premium veterinary care feel embarrassed or guilty? Or do I offer options without judgment?

19) What are we ignoring or dismissing in veterinary medicine today that will seem shockingly obvious in the near future?

20) How do I know if I’m being patient (a skill) or stubborn (a flaw)? I prefer to think it’s the former, but they’re hard to tell apart without hindsight.

The final question is inspired by the still-aching loss to suicide of Dr. Sophia Yin and so many of our colleagues. I know all those who have lost a hero to that darkness, or have been trapped in it ourselves, will understand it all too well: Who do I look up to and see as a hero, a source of strength and support? Who really needs my help?

Those were my questions, which I’ll be spending time this year answering. While an inventory can be painful, it can also transform our personal and professional lives. I’d love to hear your questions, too. You can contact me at drmjb@fearfreepets.com.

Marty Becker, DVM, writes every other month for Veterinary Practice News. He is a Sandpoint, Idaho, practitioner and founder of the Fear Free initiative. For more information about Fear Free or to register for certification, go to fearfreepets.com. Columnists’ opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Veterinary Practice News.

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