The changing role of technicians


As legislators grapple with complaints of veterinarian shortages, they are looking to technicians to help fill the gap. But what does this mean for the role of technicians in the veterinary profession?

NATIONAL REPORT — As legislators grapple with complaints of veterinarian shortages, they are looking to technicians to help fill the gap.

But what does this mean for the role of technicians in the veterinary industry?

Examples of some new legislation is Washington House Bill 1272, which allows technicians to administer controlled substances without the direct supervision of a licensed veterinarian, and a move in Illinois to admit veterinary technicians into the state veterinary medical association.

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"I think it's great that states are recognizing legally what technicians are trained to do and allowing them to do that in practice," says Teresa Raffel, RVT, an instructor at Madison Area Technical College and president of the Wisconsin Veterinary Technician Association. "But veterinarians may not know fully what technicians are trained to do or just don't want to give up those duties themselves."

It's a double-edged sword, Raffel says of an increase in technician responsibility. Technicians taking on more duties could lead to an increase in disciplinary actions against, them, but Raffel says that's not necessarily a bad thing, either.

"That holds people accountable for being a professional," she says.

But problems could arise when veterinarians allow their technicians too much freedom or expect more from them then they are allowed.

"There may be technicians or veterinarians who still abuse the laws and allow people to do more than they are supposed to," she adds, pointing to veterinarians who pass spays and neuters onto their technicians.

Technicians, along with their new freedom, will have to learn when to draw the line for themselves, she cautions.

"It might get a little hairy with the large-animal end of the medicine field just because if you're a technician and you're at a farm and you're there to treat a milk fever cow and the farmer asks you to look at something else, you have to say no," Raffel explains. "The farming industry may also have a longer adjustment phase as far as expecting veterinarians to come out. If it's a brand new concept in the area to have a technician visit a farm, it might take a long time to get used to. Some farmers still don't like women veterinarians."

Increased responsibilities for technicians may also do wonders for job turnover and employee retention.

Both Raffel and Dr. Richard Johnson, owner of the Animal Medical Center in California and chair of the RVTC commission for the California Veterinary Medical Board, agree that the key to keeping qualified technicians from leaving the veterinary industry is to challenge them and give them room to grow in their position.

"I've looked at different professions and I feel so strongly that we are truly one of the only professions that doesn't provide the support for our teams. I think the profession is not interested because we've had it pretty good," Johnson says. "We can hire people off the street and pay them 8 to 10 bucks and hour. But after five or six years, they begin to look at it and say, there's no career ladder. The hang-up is that we don't want to give them any opportunity and we basically want to keep them under our thumb."

Regardless of any new freedoms legislators might bestow on technicians, some veterinarians may be afraid of delegating to technicians because they're unsure of what they are capable of doing or they simply don't want to share their own responsibilities, Raffel and Johnson agree. Paying technicians more for doing more also is a hold-back, but they say greater technician roles don't necessarily mean a clinic has to lose money.

Allowing technicians to take over more procedures, like simple mass removals, would free up the veterinarian's time to perform more complex procedures that bring more money into the clinic, Johnson points out. Technicians who are happy in their jobs and challenged also will have better morale, like their work more and become more productive, therefore helping to increase clinic performance, Raffel adds.

Over the next decade, changes to veterinary practice laws that give technicians more freedoms, coupled with more specialized technician training, will dramatically change the professional landscape for RVTs, Raffel says. But Johnson feels the profession still has a long way to go to get to where physicians assistants, nurses and paralegals are.

"Paralegals are fabulous at what they do. As are physicians assistants and nurses. And they all make good salaries, so they stay in the profession. Same with dental hygienists. Hygienists in California earn a good salary and now they want to go and open their own businesses. That's where control comes in," Johnson says. "Groomers now are sometimes cleaning a dog's teeth. But that's what happens when you don't address these issues."

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Angela Elia, BS, LVT, CVT, VTS (ECC)
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