Challenges in Vet Practice

Having worked with many Veterinarians since 2009, and having made a number of emergency calls to a Vet clinic with my brother and his dog Oscar – my furry nephew (yes, I have become one of ‘those’ people who anthropomorphises animals) – I have been granted a unique insight into the challenges in Vet practices.  And into the rewards of your profession.  Yours is a noble profession, requiring you to have detailed knowledge of many different animal species.  To witness the level of trusting bond that a pet has for their human, I have huge respect for all staff in a Vet practice who dedicate their lives to tending to these sick defenceless animals. 

On the other end of the spectrum, to show care for – and treat – farm animals that are destined for human consumption is also a rare gift requiring a strength of character that should be honoured.  To be able to tend to  – and save – the lives of other species is a very rare gift that deserves to be revered.  And yet, I hear that this is not always your experience. 

On top of the ‘usual suspects’ of challenges in Vet Practice (see below), 2020 has given us a unique set of circumstances  resulting from the Covid-19 threat and the ‘Great Pause’.  The world has changed – dramatically for some, less so for others.  It’s unrealistic to expect yourself to not be affected by what’s happening: be it fear of contracting Covid-19; loss of income; health concerns of loved ones; not being able to see elderly loved ones, or those living overseas.  Many organisations are being forced to close or to retrench large numbers of staff.  The economic fallout for everyone will be far-reaching, and I anticipate it will take time to recover.  Already, I am witnessing the impact in my practice: stress, anxiety and depression has increased; all clinical psychologists are experiencing a dramatic increase in new referrals, some of whom are struggling financially.  The challenges I name in this article are not new.  They have intensified.  I expect they will definitely have intensified for your profession.

We can all ride out this tough time, with support and guidance.  In my next article I offer suggestions on how to build resiliency to face the challenges in vet practice that will stand you in good stead. 

Challenges

There are many challenges in being a Vet, some of them are common to all professionals running a small business (having run my own practice for over 20 years, I have experienced many of these first-hand).  Some are common to high-performing professions.  And, there are some challenges that are unique to your profession. 

1. Client interactions

At times you have to encounter humans at their worst, whether they are grieving, or in despair unable to pay the vet bills, or angry and abusive, or drug-and alcohol-fuelled.  I have worked with Paediatric Oncologists and Nurses who have similar experiences: in times of despair and desperation, some parents are fearful, angry, terrified for their child, and in this state of high emotional arousal act very irrationally, venting their fears onto – and even blaming – the professionals trying to help.  Neither Vet school nor Med school teaches you how to handle such emotional reactions from clients.  Social media is wreaking havoc for many Vets as disgruntled clients who lack the courage to speak directly to the Vet or the practice manager, remain faceless ‘cowards’ and slander people.  As hard as it may be, I urge you to not take any such faceless criticisms personally. Learn to rise above these comments (see ‘Train the Mind’, in my next article called “Resilience: How to bounce back in a Vet Practice”)

2. Interpersonal interactions between staff

Many of my Vet clients express anxiety and stress associated with managing staff.  Emotions are highly contagious.  If one staff member is stressed, anxious or depressed it can have a huge impact on their behaviour: how they interact with their colleagues or with their clients.  We’ve all experienced it: we either wander around with a heavy cloud over our heads which shapes how we approach our jobs, our clients and colleagues.  This may result in those around us not feeling confident in our ability to perform operations.  Or perhaps it’s a colleague who is beleaguered with emotions and we feel the weight of their moods.  As a Vet, it is important to manage not only your own emotions, but also those of your staff because it has a significant impact on the wellbeing of all staff and on the success of your practice.  Yet, Vet school does not teach you how to do this.

3. Intra-personal beliefs and fears

Most high-performing people I know have a hidden fear of either not being good enough; fear of failure/making a mistake; or fear of not being liked.  Whilst these are common across most professions, and not bad or a weakness, they can ‘hamstring’ us because we either believe these fears, or we work very hard to disprove them.  They form filters through which we experience life and thus present a challenge in Vet practice since they impact the way we interact with clients and colleagues.  For instance, they can cause us to feel anxious asking for payment.  Or they can cause us to react strongly, feeling attacked or criticised by peers or clients.

4. Running a business and negotiating fees

There are many hidden overheads associated with running a small business.  Only those who have done so understand the weight of responsibility always hanging over your head.  Most clients have very little idea of the cost of running a Vet practice: we are so used to the fees we pay to see our GP – which is heavily subsidised thankfully  – that we have no idea of the real cost of health care.  Vets then wear the brunt of this lack of information, with some clients baulking at the fees.  This is more so now than ever, as the world battles with the economic fallout of Covid-19.

5. Fears of some surgical procedures

I have encountered a surprising number of Vets who are fearful of performing some procedures.  The following are quite common: dental extractions; spays, especially of overweight animals; anaesthetising small animals. No amount of extra training overcomes this (largely irrational) fear.  It often stems from the intra-personal fears listed above.

6. Euthanising animals

Some Vets struggle with this.  Some are far more pragmatic about the need to euthanise an animal.  At the VPL camp all students complete an MBTI personality assessment and it seems clear that how you cope with having to euthanise is influenced by your personality.  Whilst Vets have a huge capacity to feel, and to love animals, when it comes to making such tough decisions people either consider the emotional versus the practical aspects. Both have their place, yet it can cause great distress for some Vets, especially because it runs counter to their ethical values.

Look out for part 2 of this blog ‘Resilience in a Vet Practice’ for tips and exercises to build this strength.

Naomi Bickley, Clinical Psychologist

BSC(hons Psych), MClin Psych, MAPS, MICP

Being the Camp Psychologist for Murdoch University’s Veterinary School’s Veterinary Professional Life (VPL) Camp since 2009, Naomi has run 12 three-day residential workshops with over 1,200 second-year Vet students, and many academic staff and volunteer support staff comprising Veterinarians, Vet nurses and allied Vet staff.  She has run a number of workshops and given presentations for Veterinary Graduates in Practice; Veterinary Mentors; and the AVA.  Several years ago the Veterinary Surgeons’ Board appointed her “Psychologist of choice” to whom to refer Vets and Vet nurses who are needing support.

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