The relief industry’s Golden Age

Any veterinarian seeking relief work need only respond to a few ads for part- or full-time work and offer their services

My advice to those who would go alone in the world of relief services: Any veterinarian seeking relief work need only respond to a few ads for part- or full-time work and offer their services. It is pretty easy to get yourself fully booked, especially in this economy. Want to make more money? Want to get rid of all the soul-sucking BS that makes you hate being a veterinarian where you’re currently employed? Want to be freer, more flexible, more in control of your career? Consider working as a relief veterinarian!

That is the pitch you will get from the folks over at some of the new outfits promising to make you a happier human being if you join their workforce as a relief veterinarian. Several of these have cropped up over the past couple years or so, and the response from the veterinary community has probably been positive, if my read on our profession is any measure.

How can I tell? For one, it has been much easier for me to find relief veterinarians to staff my practice than it has been for me to hire anyone permanently. More significantly, though, there has been social media buzz surrounding veterinary workplace angst and acrimony (darker posts in my feed are gaining traction) coupled with an increasingly negative attitude toward work among veterinarians for hire. Add in the pandemic and a stalled market for full-time veterinarians and the result is a panorama of disillusionment, overwork, burnout, and frustration. There is no better fuel for a market in relief veterinarians.

The benefits of a life in relief

I should know. As a fledgling veterinarian I, too, was drawn to this kind of work. After a proscriptive, restrictive, and thoroughly demoralizing year in corporate practice, it seemed liberating to drive to a new place every day, earn top dollar for a stint, and feel 100 percent in control my work-life balance. A year or two of this later (after kissing a lot of froggy practices, I will confess), I bedded down with two practices and later committed to one, which I now own.

My experience as a relief veterinarian was liberating, financially rewarding, and highly educational, but it had its downside, too. I was sexually harassed, stood up, and stiffed (sometimes all in one shift).

Nevertheless, I was truly in control of my destiny. I could walk out at any time (I did on several occasions), ask for more money if I did not like the practice (or had to drive too far), or sign a contract for full-time employment on the spot if I had wanted to. Above all, I learned a lot about the industry and how I wanted to practice. It was pretty great.

What is driving the trend

Fast forward to the increasing popularity of relief work among veterinarians and it is clear there are several discrete drivers. Beyond the nebulous, post-pandemic negativity storm we seem to be experiencing, I’ve observed the following factors hard at work:

  1. Corporate vet med’s unfulfilled promises. Corporate practice is becoming the most popular choice of new graduates for a good reason: security. It pays well and there are plenty of others doing the same thing. As such, we treat independent practices as more of an unknown quantity, a leap of faith. What happens when you have been burned by the “sure thing”? It is hard to believe there is anything more stable out there. You might as well hang up your own shingle. But wait…that is not exactly a realistic option now, is it?
  2. Limited practice ownership opportunities. Where veterinarians were once able to set up shop upon receipt of their diplomas, purchase an existing practice within a couple of years, or readily buy into one should their first or second job pan out well, the economics of veterinary practice no longer makes that option available to any but the most financially advantaged among us.
    Limited opportunities for independence in practice means those of us with a penchant for self-determination and a willingness to take risks must find opportunities elsewhere. Relief practice is a natural outlet for these inclinations.
  3.  The gig economy culture. We are all increasingly comfortable with the concept of gig work and sideline jobs. A career is no longer the straight line most of the older veterinarians among us have become accustomed to. Enter relief work, which meshes well, culturally speaking, with the way so many of our friends and relatives do their work. It is a more socially acceptable career path than ever before.
  4. Social media’s influence. One dastardly thing all social media platforms have in common is the ability to make everyone else look like they are having more fun than you are. It invites comparison, inspires covetous feelings, and promotes a grass-is-greener mindset. All of these can elicit feelings of inferiority and a sense of missing out, even among those most satisfied with their careers.
    While a few supportive online sources might save lives, the very existence of social media’s ubiquitous lowest common denominator has a better chance of eroding a vulnerable veterinarian’s relationship with their work.
  5. Veterinary optimism. I have argued this point here before, veterinarians are a preternaturally optimistic lot. We have to be to endure what we do on our path to receiving our degrees and, later, paying for them. It is our basic optimism that powers us through the stresses and demands of everyday life in practice. I would argue looking to relief work is a fundamentally optimistic exercise in veterinary self-determination. It only makes sense we would see the allure.
  6. Corporate inroads. Enter the new players: online outlets that can organize everything for you, from finding you work to organizing your health insurance and generally making the process as seamless as possible. Like a dating app in concept but more like Uber-driving, in practice. These handy tools make relief work less risky and more attractive to the average veterinarian and are doubtlessly responsible for some of the uptick in the popularity in relief practice.

Glamorous it is not

Selling us on slick, test-marketed websites teeming with platitudes targeting dissatisfied veterinarians is hardly a new paradigm. Still, I have to object to the glamorization of relief work I have encountered here. After all, vet work does not get any easier because you set your own schedule or answer to an invisible employer. More still, I’m troubled by the implied misrepresentation of what is offered. This is not true “independent” work any more than driving for Uber might be.

After all, as with building a YouTube channel or selling on eBay, you still have to accept the terms of agreement dictated by these platforms. You are not really going it alone. You are not free to stay or go or even dress how you want. They can kick you out at any time or change the terms on a dime. So, if being master of your own destiny is the appeal…maybe this is not the best way forward for you. Read the fine print, is all I am saying.

Relief work 101

That said, I’m a big fan of relief work for both veterinarians and practices. It is typically a win-win. Moreover, I’m unreservedly supportive of any trend that gives veterinarians more control over their working lives and alternative career paths in general. I’m just not a big fan of middlemen trying to squeeze in on our game—much less when it is done in the name of our “independence.”

My advice to those who would go alone in the world of relief services: Any veterinarian seeking relief work need only respond to a few ads for part- or full-time work and offer their services. It is pretty easy to get yourself fully booked, especially in this economy. Finding independent health insurance is not preclusive, either. What is really hard is being a competent, reliable, hard-working veterinarian who plays well with others. Undoubtedly, there is no getting around that, no matter when, where, or how you practice.

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

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