I started writing mini-stories in January of 2020. When I started planning the content for what would eventually become A Paw Partnership, the stories immediately began to flow. Not just my own stories but also the stories of others in the veterinary industry.
I spent countless hours doing informational interviews and talking with so many people who worked in different roles throughout their veterinary career. Some were veterinarians, veterinary assistants, veterinary technicians, receptionists, veterinary sales reps, dog trainers, and the list goes on. So many people worked in a veterinary hospital, but they all had such different roles when it came to operating a veterinary hospital
I’ve previously written about the vital role of effective teamwork — see Why A Paw Parntership?— and how the stability of a clinic’s operations depends on it. I mentioned teamwork and how crucial it was to the stability of hospital operations to cultivate a team that worked together. Now, with so many different roles in one hospital where everyone needed to work together it only made sense that if people within the industry didn’t always understand the job responsibilities of their colleagues, then how would someone outside the industry have any idea about all the hats veterinary professionals wear.
Roles in the Veterinary Profession
The structure of private and corporate level practices are similar in the roles they have. However, in a corporate level practice, the positions extend out to higher level management, executive and director level roles both clinical and non-clinical.
The day-to-day routine of a hospital employee is anything but routine. No day starts the same way as the one before, and each day presents a different set of challenges. A veterinary team usually sees a wide-variety of cases on a daily basis, from routine preventative care appointments to sick appointments, surgeries, dental cleanings, and emergency cases. From my observations, the average ratio of veterinary assistants per doctor consists of two assistants or technicians per one full-time equivalent (FTE) doctor. From my experience, the ratio increases in highly functioning practices to three or four assistants or technicians per FTE. Employees of veterinary practices seem happier with a higher ratio of assistants or technicians per doctor appear to have higher levels of job satisfaction, productivity, camaraderie, and develop a strong clientele.
Whether a veterinary practice is privately owned or part of a larger corporation, the job titles of its employees looks relatively similar. Typical vet clinics have
- Customer Service Representative/Receptionist
- Kennel Assistant
- Veterinary Assistant (VA)
- Licensed Veterinary Technician (LVT)
- Practice/Hospital Manager (PM/HM)
- Veterinarian (DVM/VMD)
Since each role in the office is responsible for maintaining their own area of jurisdiction to keep the well-oiled machine running, let’s examine each briefly.
Customer Service Representative / Receptionist (CSR)
From the moment a client and pet patient enter the front door, front desk reception staff attend to their needs. Behind the desk, the client can anticipate seeing. Customer Service Representatives (CSR), Client Care Specialists (CCS), or Receptionists. CSR’s perform essential duties similar to those performed by receptionists across any industry that requires customer interaction and quality service.
An effective CSR should have basic medical knowledge, as the first person a client interacts with is a CSR. If the first impression of a veterinary clinic doesn’t demonstrate the ability to triage a medical appointment, answer basic questions about vaccines and wellness, or effectively communicate the services an incoming pet may need, this can create discrepancy and question about the quality of the hospital services.
A groomer is responsible for the physical care of a pet’s coat and nails. In order to become a certified pet groomer, professional schooling and a certificate of completion are required. The tools groomers use to care for a pet require extensive training and care to maintain the coat without causing injury to themselves or the pet.
Some pets visit their groomers more frequently than they visit their veterinarians. Through the course of providing a pet’s ongoing and frequent skin and coat care, a groomer naturally familiarizes herself with the pet’s physical appearance. It’s not uncommon, therefore, for an attentive groomer to be the first to notice changes or abnormalities in a pet’s condition. I certainly owe my dogs’ groomer a debt of gratitude. My dogs — Simba, Leo, and Scottie — see their veterinarian three or four times per year. They see their groomer, every month. So when a hard mass appeared on Leo’s left leg in 2018, Masha noticed. Because his groomer massages and cleans him, a mass the size of a dime grabbed her attention, she grabbed mine, and because of this relationship, our veterinarian successfully removed the mass before it spread.
Some veterinary facilities enjoy the luxury of having a groomer on staff. Not only does the on-site grooming service provide a one-stop-shopping convinces for the pet parent, it can also reduce stress on the pet. The positive relationship groomers build with a pet can ease the visit for the pet as a veterinary patient, and the frequent grooming visits can help the pet form a positive association with the clinic facility itself. And when grooming and veterinary health care staff can work together to tailor the visit and experience to the pet, the result is comprehensive, head-to-tail pet care.
Veterinary offices may also offer boarding services in addition to grooming and medical services. Boarding facilities in a medical practice are especially helpful for patients that require special attention, administration of medications via oral administration or an injection, or monitoring of a medical condition, for example a diabetic cat or a pet that recently had a surgical procedure. A lead veterinary assistant or technician usually supervises the care of boarding patients, but the kennel assistant remains responsible for the primary care of a boarding patient.
A kennel assistant is a vital part of the veterinary team, as they can care for the patients who are boarding. As an entry level kennel assistant progresses, they have the opportunity to grow into the role of a veterinary assistant or veterinary technician through the appropriate training and potentially completing the required degree to obtain a license to practice as a veterinary technician or veterinarian.
Veterinary Assistant (VA)
The job of a veterinary assistant is very broad when it comes to all of the hats a veterinary assistant wears. This group of professionals begin their training many times as a kennel assistant, and progress into the role of a VA. Step one usually consists of learning to read the nonverbal cues and signals given off by the patients, and recognizing the common signs and stressors for patients. A veterinary assistant typically assists with the hands-on care of patients, and are responsible for an array of duties, as listed below (may vary based on state-laws):
- Triage appointments
- Educate clients on a variety of preventative care, and disease processes
- Administer vaccinations, monitor anesthesia, take x-rays of various body cavities and extremities
- Perform professional dental cleanings under anesthesia
- Collect and prepare lab samples for collection ranging from blood, urine, and fecal collection, to cytology and fungal cultures
- Assist and prepare in surgery, maintain and sterilize surgical equipment, and assist in CPR
- Perform basic grooming needs: baths, nail trims, ear cleaning, anal gland expressions, sanitary shave, etc.
- Fill medications as prescribed by a veterinarian
- Review estimates and treatment plans with clients
- Assist with training of new hires, by functioning as mentors
A veterinary assistant functions almost as a para-doctor and leads the treatment of the cases a doctor works up. Veterinary assistants ensures the delivery of patient status updates, recommendations, and anything else related to the patients medical care via phone calls, informational handouts, emails, and personal contact. Many veterinary assistants also volunteer their time for other duties, such as ordering supplies for the hospital, participating in marketing and community outreach events, and many choose to become a certified, or licensed veterinary technician.
Licensed Veterinary Technician (LVT)
A licensed veterinary technician is often looked upon as the leader of the technical team. In order to obtain licensure, the individual is required to attend a two-year program, and completes an associate’s degree in Veterinary Technology. There are a variety of in-person, online, and hybrid programs which allow students to work and attend school at the same time. Upon completing the schooling requirements, studying for the Veterinary Technician National Exam (VTNE) begins. Preparing for the exam is no less than any other board exam, and requires months of intense studying in order to pass the exam. The Board of Veterinary Medicine requires veterinary technicians seeking licensure to complete a 3-hour, 170 multiple choice question exam in order to become licensed. The exam takes place through three different cycles during the year, and examines applicants on many different subjects studied throughout the program.
Having personally completed this schooling to become a licensed veterinary technician, I can attest to the value of gaining experience in the industry prior to completing the degree program. Typical coursework in a veterinary technician program consists of focused courses about the science of multiple species, and performing externships consisting of six-hundred in clinic hours, which programs require of students. Becoming a LVT is hard work, but at times the effort put into completing the requirements for licensure goes overlooked due to the deficit of LVT’s across the profession. As a result, many hospital teams must leverage their staff to ensure the upkeep and maintenance of patient care standards.
Licensed veterinary technicians perform all of the duties of a veterinary assistant, in addition to the following (may vary based on state-laws):
- Place IV catheters and endotracheal tubes
- Administer IV anesthesia and sedation
- Monitor hospital stock of controlled substances under supervision of a licensed veterinarian
- Perform cystocentesis to obtain a sterile urine sample
- Required to maintain licensure by completing continuing education credits as determined by the state he/she is licensed in
- Train, develop, and mentor colleague
For those seeking a veterinary career, I would strongly recommend gaining working experience while going to school or prior to enrolling in the courses as the material presented in the courses becomes more applicable as it is being learned, giving students a wholesome picture versus bits and pieces and having to figure out how to apply it at a later time.
As of September 2020, the Board of Veterinary Medicine was working on highlighting the role of LVT’s by potentially changing their title to ‘Veterinary Nurse’, and possibly changing the title of a veterinary assistant to technician to better align with the job duties of both roles. Many veterinary technicians seek greater acknowledgement surrounding their job roles and request a title more fitting of their job duties. I believe this is a step in the right direction to empower individuals in the field, and give them credit for the work they do. The title of a “Veterinary Nurse” better aligns and provides more understanding around all that a veterinary technician does in a veterinary hospital.
Practice/Hospital Manager (PM/HM)
Through the chain of command, the most experienced and highest positioned team member is the leader and practice, or hospital manager. LVTs, individuals with or without industry experience, or those who have exemplified they have the ability to lead a hospital qualify as candidates for the practice manager position. The practice manager is usually a high performing employee who has earned the trust and respect of their peers in the hospital or someone new coming in.
The duties of a practice manager are endless, requiring more than forty hour work weeks, with no overtime pay. The managers I have worked with, myself included, often worked more than forty hours per week. The average work week of a hospital manager ranged anywhere from fifty to sixty hours per week. If an employee called out from a shift or the schedule was overbooked, the manager had to figure out how to fill the gaps, oftentimes resulting in the practice manager working late on the floor or setting up interviews to hire new employees.
One of the most important aspect of a managerial position in a veterinary hospital, is building a relationship with the medical director, or veterinarian in charge. The practice manager and medical director function as a unit, and work together to meet the expectations of each other, their peers, and upper management on how the hospital should be performing.
In conjunction with the hospital manager, the veterinarian plays a critical leadership role in veterinary practices. They are constantly being watched by their team members and colleagues, with very little down time and oftentimes don’t have the luxury of taking a break during their long shifts. The busy work schedules easily amount to over fifty hours per work week. Most employees look to the veterinarian for direction regarding patient care. Veterinarians are required to hold the appropriate license to practice and expected to know all of the body systems of multiple animal species.
Veterinarians act as nutritionists, internal medicine specialists, surgeons, dentists, emergency physicians, pharmacists, phlebotomist’s, mentors, grief and anxiety counselors for their clients and team members. Certainly like any doctor, they’re expected to have a good “bedside manner” when speaking with pet owners. Pet owners bring with them all of their emotions and attachments to their animals, and vets must be prepared and have the soft skills to navigate such conversations with people. In this way, veterinarians really function as counselors for their patient families and team members, while trying to practice medicine. It isn’t uncommon in veterinary practices where close working relationships are formed and members of the team provide emotional support for one another.
Veterinarians also oftentimes work as “relief” veterinarians, which means they fill in shifts for clinics on an as needed basis instead of working for the clinic as a permanent team member. A relief veterinarian has more independence when it comes to their schedule, and usually receive pay for an hourly rate regardless of the number of cases they see.
The roles in a veterinary practice vary in their job responsibilites, but each member of the team plays a crucial role in the overall operations of a successful veterinary practice. It is important for everyone inside and outside of a veterinary practice to understand the job responsibilies of their colleagues to allow for increased productivitity and teamwork, to help a veterinary practice thrive.
In this article series, I share excerpts and stories from my book, A Paw Partnership. I hope you enjoyed this post — if you enjoyed it and want to connect you can reach me via my webpage, or connect with me on social media: Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.
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