Associates, don't fear change. Embrace it.


You are perfectly positioned to benefit from change. Here's how to make the most of three key management decisions.

For several years, Dr. Smith had wanted to buy a surgical laser, and finally his budget had room for the purchase. Excited, he sent a letter to all of the practice's clients, as well as new neighborhood residents, announcing the service. His associate, Dr. Jones, had pushed for purchasing other equipment instead. And she was less than thrilled when the new laser arrived. Both doctors received training from the manufacturer, but Dr. Jones didn't take it seriously—or pay much attention. Dr. Smith wasn't confident in Dr. Jones' ability to use the laser, so he instructed the receptionists to schedule laser surgeries on his surgery days only. Any opportunity for the two doctors to work as a team promoting the new service was lost. Frustrated, Dr. Jones eventually quit.

Guess what: As an associate, your role during periods of change is bigger than you may think. Dr. Jones could've handled this situation differently, don't you agree? Sure, she pushed for purchasing other equipment, but once it was decided to purchase the laser, what if she had been determined to learn all about it? What if, in addition to the manufacturer's training, she also took a two-week online CE course on laser physics, safety, and surgical use? The situation might have played out quite a bit differently if she embraced the decision.

Three big changes occurring in many veterinary practices these days are the addition of new services and products, the modification of vaccine protocols, and the hiring of a practice manager. While your boss is the one to sign off on these weighty management decisions, you're an important impetus for change. So how can you learn and grow as a doctor in these situations? How will change affect the way you practice medicine? You can bring new and fresh ideas to the table and help make those changes—and the practice—a success.

1. Adding new services and products

Both you and the practice owner are bombarded every day with information about a myriad of new products. Ideally, all of the doctors in a practice discuss and agree on which ones are the most efficacious, cost-effective, safe, and appealing to clients. Even if no formal discussion takes place, you should still speak up. The owner can't consider your opinions if he or she doesn't know what they are.

Products are one thing, but expensive equipment such as an ultrasound or digital radiography machine represents a much greater investment. In deciding whether to make such a purchase, the practice owner must weigh many factors: What's the expected return on investment? What value will it add to the practice? Will clients embrace the technology? And, perhaps most importantly, are the other doctors willing to become proficient in using the equipment? Associates, you may be more than willing, but does your boss know that? And owners (we know you're reading this, too), are you willing to equip your associates with the training to use the equipment?

Here's the other side of the coin: Maybe you've just come from school, where you used all the best and latest equipment, and now the owner of the practice where you landed doesn't have any of it. What's more, he or she doesn't seem to care. This is a bummer—it's only natural that you want to continue to practice state-of-the-art medicine.

Instead of adapting to change, your role is to initiate it. You accomplish this by doing your homework and justifying—with data—how an equipment purchase makes sense both medically and financially. This approach isn't limited to buying machines. You can also play a part in developing new services, such as a senior care plan, that will give you a niche in the practice and bring in an additional revenue stream. What boss could turn that down?

Why bother, you ask? Remember, the more involved and vocal you are in the decision-making process, the greater the role you'll have in pets' care. "As an associate, just because I don't own the building doesn't mean I don't have an ownership interest in the practice," says Dr. Laura McLain, who works at Central Valley Veterinary Hospital in South Salt Lake, Utah. "A new product or service represents a new way I can help my patients and clients and generate income for the practice."

Dr. Laura McLain

Dr. McLain has learned that the key to success is to educate herself, get some experience, and look for opportunities to talk up the new product or service with clients. When her practice bought a therapeutic laser about a year ago, she read up on how the equipment worked and what it was used for. Then she tried it out on her own dogs—and even on herself!

Dr. McLain says the addition of the laser has been a success: "Everyone has been on the same page with their recommendations because we've all seen the positive effect on patients."

2. Changing vaccine protocols

Not only are medical recommendations for vaccine intervals constantly changing, but protocols vary from practice to practice based on patient populations and doctors' application of the guidelines. As an associate, especially if you're a more recent graduate, you can help your practice successfully transition to longer vaccination intervals.

"There's some evidence that shows older pets may not need to be vaccinated for viruses every year," says Dr. Andrew Rollo, an associate at Madison Veterinary Hospital in Madison Heights, Mich. "And as young doctors, we're more likely to accept that evidence because we don't have as many preconceived ideas of how things have always been done." Dr. Rollo says some practice owners might see spreading out the vaccine protocol as a threat to revenue or a reason for clients not to visit the clinic as often. If your boss is one of these owners, it's your job to help him or her see the balance between business and medicine. You can do this by strategizing ways to emphasize regular exams and other wellness procedures to get pet owners in the door if annual shots aren't there to do the trick.

Dr. Andrew Rollo

Of course, the burden's not only on you to stay current. It's the equal responsibility of all veterinarians in a practice to stay on top of vaccine trends and protocols. Dr. Melody Heath, an associate at Viewmont Animal Hospital in Hickory, N.C., suggests that all the doctors in a practice research a vaccine product, discuss it together, promote and use the product on a trial basis, and finally evaluate it and make a decision. Once they do that, the vaccine becomes part of the practice's standard protocol, with flexibility for patients' individual risk factors. "From an associate's perspective, it's not a good thing to open the refrigerator and see a tray of vaccines you didn't know your practice was even considering," Dr. Heath says.

It's also not a good thing for team members to be in the dark about the vaccines you're using. "It's crucial to keep the staff informed," says Dr. Heath. "Whether you use written materials or communicate during staff meetings, team members need to know any updates or changes regarding vaccines so that clients are hearing consistent messages." If your practice could do better at this, maybe it's an opportunity for you to demonstrate leadership and spearhead a team-education effort.

3. Hiring a practice manager

Hiring a practice manager is a wonderful thing. A manager can help the practice owner gain about 15 hours a week to spend practicing medicine instead of performing administrative duties—which is many doctors' dream. Also, a manager takes a lot of worry off the owner's shoulders. And when the owner focuses more exclusively on medicine, the hospital's income can see a significant boost, and overall, the entire practice runs more efficiently.

All of these benefits trickle down and directly affect you, the associate, in a positive way. You're able to focus more on medicine, too, and not worry so much about the staff-related issues going on around you. "The mere fact that the veterinarians are able to focus on treating pets while the practice manager focuses on employee issues improves profitability and employee satisfaction," Dr. Heath says. "Most associates appreciate having a practice manager, and I've worked with several owners who have spent far more time managing than practicing medicine." This lack of balance can place undue stress on associates, meaning longer hours spent at work and bigger caseloads. But when the right balance is found, everyone's happy.

This doesn't mean that once a practice manager is hired you can shift into cruise control. Before this change, you probably felt somewhat responsible for your actions and their effect on the future of the hospital—and you should still feel this way after the manager is on board. The biggest mistake you can make at this point is to think that things are "someone else's problem now." You're still a practice leader, and your new manager wants to hear your input and concerns. He or she also wants you to demonstrate just as much vested interest in the business as you always have.

When any new decision rolls down in a veterinary practice, the whole team needs to be on board, and this includes you. "If some of the staff members don't believe in a new drug or policy, clients will pick up on it," Dr. Rollo says. So if you're nervous about a change coming down the pike at your practice, try embracing it instead of resisting.

The practice owner will appreciate that you care so much about the success of the practice. And remember, a strong role in the decision-making process also positions you for the next step in your career—practice ownership.

The bottom line

A penny for your thoughts

A role in the decision-making process helps position you for the next steps in your career. So here's how to embrace change and have a hand in making it happen:

  • Initiate change instead of simply adapting to it.

  • Remember that change is good—it can help you do your job better.

  • Adapt to your boss's communication style and learn how to best work with him or her.

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