I have owned my own animal hospital for almost 11 years. The easy part of owning my own practice is taking care of the patients. After all, that is what I learned to do in veterinary school. The hard part is the running of a small business. Even though I had worked previously at three other animal hospitals and had tried to learn the things needed to eventually run my own business, once I had my own business it seemed I was truly learning on the fly. I made some good decisions and made some really stupid mistakes, but after eleven years I am starting to feel like I have a pretty good handle on things.
The single most important thing I learned early on is to have a good, competent staff and to try really hard to retain them. While it is true as a veterinarian I have to be at least adequate, without a good staff clients won’t even make it in the door for me to see their pet. I have read articles on the cost of employee turnover on a business listed in dollars, but it goes way beyond the dollars. While almost everyone I talk to seems interested in working in an animal hospital, it isn’t an easy place to work at times. Just loving animals is definitely not enough of a qualification by itself. Working around cute puppies and kittens is a nice perk of the job. Getting a sloppy, lick in the face by a friendly Golden Retriever can really make your day. Having a big, fluffy cat rub against you while purring so loud that you can’t even hear the heartbeat through your stethoscope has an amazing, calming affect on everyone that hears it. But, some days those benefits can easily get outweighed by the hard parts of the job.
Believe it or not, some pets don’t like coming to visit us! We try hard to make the visits pleasant, but some pets just don’t buy into it. Animal hospital employees must know how to handle these pets to allow us to care for them. We have a lot of tricks (and drugs) to allow us to care for even the most objectionable of pets. It can be very frustrating to care for pets that are looking at you like they want you dead.
And if you think the pets can be a pain in the rear, you should hear some of the stories about a few of the clients! I have been extremely fortunate to have many great clients who take care of their pets and also treat my staff with kindness and respect. It is a shame when 99.9% of clients coming into my office are so incredible that the other .1% can completely ruin an otherwise great day. While my staff is doing their job of enforcing my policies, they have had clients be just plain mean to them, swear at them, and even throw things at them. To make things even worse, when I talk to those clients, they either act like it wasn’t a big deal or try to be really nice to me to make up for it. I don’t feel bad at all telling them we will be glad to send copies of their records to their next veterinarian.
Lastly, there is another person the animal hospital staff must deal with who can be a real pain in the rear. I guess I shouldn’t generalize and say that all veterinarians can be a pain in an employee’s backside, but I can say that sometimes I can really drive my staff nuts. I change my mind on how I want things done all the time, I keep ordering products that I forget about and never sell, I order new pieces of equipment that I never use and we don’t have room for, and I am “a guy” (which is my code phrase for I can’t remember anything, I don’t listen well, and I just don’t get women).
So why am I writing about this in an article? While there is often a lot of turnover with animal hospital staff, I have been very fortunate to have had several good employees stick with me for quite a while. Currently, I have three employees that have been with me for 5-6 years. They are a huge part of the success of my practice and the care we are able to give to our patients. This is especially on my mind now because one of them is getting ready to move. She is finished with college, just got married, and is now planning on heading south to somewhere warm. As I deal with the process of hiring a new employee, I realize how fortunate I have been to have her work for me. Good Luck, Michelle. You will be hard to replace.
Dr. Chad Higgins is a 1989 graduate of the Purdue School of Veterinary Medicine and is owner of Amanda Animal Hospital just east of Spencerville.