Case studies: 3 niche practice models

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Explore three niche practice models: mobile, relief, and shelter medicine

Hopping on the fast track to a veterinary career doesn't have to include a stop at a private practice. If your route to career contentment doesn't involve putting in the typical 9-to-5 workday, staying in one place for long, or aspiring to ownership, you do have other options.

There's nothing wrong with working in traditional private practice. Almost 60,000 veterinarians practice in private U.S. veterinary hospitals. But maybe you want your career path to take you in another direction. Here's a glimpse into the life of veterinarians who found their calling in relief, mobile, and shelter work.

Dr. Lori Blackwell

Mobile veterinarian

Five days a week, Dr. Lori Blackwell loads up her 26-foot veterinary practice on wheels and hits the open road. With her long-time veterinary assistant on board, she travels the Chicago suburbs performing checkups, administering vaccinations, taking radiographs, and even completing surgeries for the pets of nearly 1,000 clients. She loves the autonomy and variety of this life—though not the high gas prices.

(PHOTOS COURTESY OF DR. LORI BLACKWELL)

After four years at a mixed animal practice and five years at a small animal practice, Dr. Blackwell struck out on her own, thinking her mobile clinic would be a temporary gig. Now, 11 years later, she has found her calling: full-service veterinary care to people who can't make it to a brick-and-mortar practice, owners of large dogs who prefer not to haul in their pets, and a surprising number of busy young families who enjoy the convenience Blackwell Mobile Veterinary Services offers.

On the move: Dr. Lori Blackwell travels the northern Chicago suburbs in a mobile clinic visiting her 1,000 clients. (PHOTOS COURTESY OF DR. LORI BLACKWELL)

"A lot of people think mobile veterinarians simply give vaccinations and euthanize pets," Dr. Blackwell says. "I'd be bored if that's all I did. My practice offers the same services as a traditional small animal clinic. And I enjoy being my own boss and getting out of the office, especially when spring hits in the area."

On a typical day, Dr. Blackwell performs a couple of procedures in the morning while her clinic is parked at her house; some clients drop their pets off for these procedures. Then she takes to the road to see the rest of her patients. An occasional patient will be hospitalized overnight in her mobile unit or in her home. "It's all a bit unconventional, but it works for me," she says.

When she started out, Dr. Blackwell advertised in the phone book. About four years ago, she pulled her ads and stopped taking new clients. "I'm as busy as I want to be," she says.

Many of her clients maintain a relationship with a traditional private practice, which Dr. Blackwell encourages. And if emergencies strike and she isn't available, plenty of urgent-care clinics will take her cases until she's back in the swing of things. "I have a good relationship with traditional and emergency practices," Dr. Blackwell says. "I'm very careful not to step on other practitioners' toes, and they appreciate that."

Working in this capacity is a win-win situation for Dr. Blackwell, who enjoys her freedom and whose clients love the convenience. In fact, when gas prices peaked last year, her clients noticed and many rushed to help. "I had clients rounding up charges and practically giving me tips for the extra costs incurred," she says. "I love that some clients really enjoy and appreciate what I do."

Dr. Micaela Shaughnessy

Relief doctor

If the thought of staying in one place too long, dealing with practice politics, or trudging through the same schedule day after day makes you nutty, consider a career in relief work. Dr. Micaela Shaughnessy of Alexandria, Va., became a relief doctor after working in private practice for six years—and burning out in the process.

Learning to bend, not break: Dr. Micaela ­Shaughnessy enjoys the flexibility of her schedule. But she reminds prospective relief doctors that they'll need to be flexible, too, when it comes to ­different protocols and policies at different clinics. (PHOTO COURTESY OF DR. MICAELA SHAUGHNESSY)

After graduating in 1993, Dr. Shaughnessy worked in mixed animal practice for three years and small animal practice for another three. "The hours were crazy, the pay wasn't that good, and I didn't want to deal with the office politics," says Dr. Shaughnessy. "I started providing relief services in 1999, and I love it."

She values the flexible schedule most of all. "When I need a vacation, I just plan it," she says. "I can take off one week or four weeks or six weeks, if I can afford it."

And generally, she can afford it. Dr. Shaughnessy says she makes more money providing relief services and charging by the hour than she did as an associate. With an eight-hour-per-day minimum, she's guaranteed a full day's pay no matter the caseload.

In her 10 years as a relief veterinarian, Dr. Shaughnessy has experienced a lot of variety. She's worked in emergency practices, all-feline practices, all-female practices, all-male practices—the whole gamut. She's usually booked two to three months in advance, so she knows what her immediate future holds. But that doesn't mean she knows what to expect when she walks into a clinic the first time.

When working as a relief veterinarian, flexibility is key. Every clinic follows a different protocol for pretty much everything, Dr. Shaughnessy says. So she must learn these protocols quickly and mold herself to each culture. The quality of care also varies dramatically among practices and regions. "I have to be flexible," she says—and not just on the clinical side, either. "I have to be available when others want to leave for vacation, so that means working summers and holidays. But it works for my family and me. We vacation in off seasons and often find places less crowded and less expensive."

While Dr. Shaughnessy is satisfied with her income, she notes that she doesn't have a steady, predictable paycheck each week—so she budgets carefully. And she doesn't have a matching 401(k) plan or other private practice perks like health insurance, compensation for CE and work clothes, and paid vacation time.

Despite these challenges, Dr. Shaughnessy notes one more bonus to working as a relief doctor: She can spend more time with her young children than she could working in a practice full time. "My time with my girls has played a big role in choosing this job," she says. "Because I make my own schedule, I can take them to activities, have lunch with them, and do the things I love to do."

Dr. Bonnie Yoffe-Sharp

Shelter veterinarian

In veterinary school, Dr. Bonnie Yoffe-Sharp learned to care for individual patients, as a small animal doctor would do in private practice, and to manage herd health, as a large animal practitioner would do on a farm. But today Dr. Yoffe-Sharp practices what she calls "small animal herd health," or population medicine, at a local animal shelter.

Balancing act: For shelter veterinarian Dr. Bonnie Yoffe-Sharp, medical decisions on infectious diseases must take into ­account not just single patients, but the entire shelter. (PHOTO COURTESY OF DR. BONNIE YOFFE-SHARP)

"I love working in the shelter and doing what I think is best for the animals, individually and as a group, rather than being at the mercy of pet owners and their resources," she says. "I'm an advocate for those that don't have advocates."

Dr. Yoffe-Sharp worked in a private practice for four years straight out of veterinary school. After a move, she practiced relief medicine for two years while searching for the right permanent position. One of those relief jobs was at a local humane society. It was there she found her niche.

She is now the sole veterinarian for Palo Alto Animal Services, a municipal shelter for the city of Palo Alto, Calif. "I can do my own thing and be my own advocate for the pets," she says. "In private practice, clients sometimes get in the way of getting pets the care they need."

However, that autonomy can also be scary, Dr. Yoffe-Sharp says, since all the responsibility for the animals' well-being falls on her shoulders. A typical day for Dr. Yoffe-Sharp includes 15 to 20 surgeries, mostly spays and neuters for shelter animals prior to adoption or for owned pets at the shelter's reduced-fee clinic. She also spends time treating individual medical and surgical cases as well as preventing and minimizing outbreaks of parvovirus, upper respiratory infection, and other infectious diseases. "I see cases similar to those in a private practice, but I also deal with the contagious diseases that can spread quickly in a shelter. I have to make decisions based on the best outcome for the entire shelter as well as for the individual patient."

The field of shelter medicine has grown tremendously over the years, says Dr. Yoffe-Sharp, a former president of the Association of Shelter Veterinarians. Those in the field are working to establish board certification for shelter medicine. Dr. Yoffe-Sharp sees the field gaining respect from her colleagues in private and specialty practice.

"I have friends and colleagues who help me," she says. "If I need a specialty procedure or consult, generous veterinarians offer to help, often for free or at reduced rates. In my experience, people are more than generous in giving what they can to help."

Sarah Moser is a freelance writer and editor in Lenexa, Kan. Please send questions or comments to ve@advanstar.com

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