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Associate veterinarians: Hiring and retention remain difficult challenge


"John called me last night. He has been offered a position in a practice near his girl friend, and he thinks he must accept it. He says he only learned of it a few days ago. He will be leaving in two weeks."

"John called me last night. He has been offered a position in a practice near his girl friend, and he thinks he must accept it. He says he only learned of it a few days ago. He will be leaving in two weeks."

This message came to me from the owner of the practice. I could only groan in frustration.

Let me give you a little more background. During my last 10 years of practice, I worked part-time in a large group practice with a strong dairy component. In addition to providing client services, I also worked to find, hire and train new associates. For the first six years, that was easy because we had no turnover.

However, the next four years were quite different with four new doctors joining the practice to replace the four who left. They worked a year or two and then moved on. That is hardly the situation you want to maintain clients and grow the practice.

Going back to the opening paragraph, that conversation occurred near the beginning of the turnover period. My painful response to the news was triggered because we had just succeeded in hiring the person we wanted after spending several months interviewing quite a few applicants. I had thought the job was done and looked forward to having the practice staff stabilize. Now we were forced to start the process over again.

To make matters worse, it was June, and most of those seeking employment already had found it.

How to cope

I'm not exactly sharing new information to say that there is a genuine shortage of food-animal practitioners. If you want to attract and keep associates, then you have to be very proactive in doing so. From first-hand experience and also from consulting with others, I think the following guidelines will help.

  • Maintain a profitable practice. If your net income is not enough to offer the type of compensation it takes, then raise fees. If you lose a little business, then you don't need the associate as much. If you don't lose business, then you can better afford to offer the type of salary, benefits and "perks" needed.

  • Encourage and support professional growth. Pay for needed training in ultrasound or production medicine or whatever area of learning your staff shows interest. Provide computers and other equipment as needed.

  • Maintain good relations with the veterinary colleges.Professors have a lot of influence on students and can certainly steer prospects toward or away from you. Develop externship programs to give students a chance to spend time in your practice and get to know you.

  • Be aware of the going rate regarding salary and benefits. Be prepared to go higher to get top-quality people. Your professional staff is your most important asset. Don't try to go cheap in this department.

  • Also try to know the paradigms of current graduates. One mistake we made was to base compensation on percentage of gross. We knew from experience that new graduates could do very well financially with this system, but students were skeptical, and many did not consider us seriously due to our payment model.

  • Practice the golden rule. Don't expect doctors to stay if you give them the worst vehicle, assign them the most unpleasant calls and require them to handle most of the emergencies. In my first practice, I started on day one with the same schedule as my employers, a relatively new truck and Bowie unit, and an opportunity to do the "fun" calls as well as the nasty ones. I stayed with that practice for 18 years.

  • Don't expect new doctors to work the same hours you did when you started. Times and people change. Chances are they will not be impressed when you share how you worked 15 hours a day, seven days a week for the first 10 years of your career.

  • Learn from your associates. They are chock full of new information. Some of it might not work in the real world, but much of it will. When I started my first job, my employers did not wear gloves in surgery. I asked if they would purchase them for me, and they did. Within two months they were wearing them as well. It was a small point, but I remember being impressed that they supported my desire to be progressive (at that time), and that they were willing to change themselves.

  • Support your staff in client relations. Mistakes will occur, and customers will get upset, and some will say, "Don't send that new guy." Do what it takes to help your associate learn from the situation, and help restore him or her to good standing with the client. If your doctor was wrong, then help them to own that. If some financial adjustment is due the client, pay it; but don't buy your way out of it just to appease them. If your doctor acted appropriately, then stand up to the client and defend your doctor.

  • Show common courtesy and respect. Praise in public; criticize in private.

  • Be clear and proactive regarding the opportunity to obtain equity in the practice. In many cases, this is what it will take to keep high-quality associates. Don't make vague statements regarding ownership potential. Have a plan, and share it. If no opportunity exists, then convey that as well, but be prepared to offer a higher salary if you want the person to stay.

Doing all of this is no guarantee that you will not have staff turnover. It will reduce it to a minimum. Your life will go easier, and your practice will grow faster if you can maintain a professional staff consisting of good people who like their jobs. Go for it!

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