Double take: What working parents and practice owners wish the other side understood

January 14, 2019
dvm360, dvm360 February 2019, Volume 50, Issue 2

Balancing the demands of parenthood with a veterinary associate job is no easy undertaking. Neither is running a successful business. Here both sides plead their case.

Devoted mom, but still a dedicated doctor

Fifty- to 60-hour workweeks are long gone for this perfectionist veterinarian as she juggles the demands of being the best mother and doctor she can be.

I became a veterinarian before I became a parent. Prior to my child's birth, I often wondered why my veterinary colleagues with children chose to work part time. Why did these women spend at least eight years working tirelessly toward their doctorates in veterinary medicine-accruing tens (or hundreds) of thousands of dollars in debt along the way-only to work less than 30 hours a week?

Little did I know the amount of work that goes into having children and the challenge of maintaining work-life balance.

My pregnancy interfered little with work. There were a few times I had to excuse myself for morning sickness. I stopped seeing exotic patients because of the risk of zoonotic diseases. I had regular appointments with my obstetrician that required blocking off time in my schedule. In my third trimester, it became increasingly difficult to work with large-breed dogs and stand all day.

I worked until the day before I delivered. Babies like surprise arrivals, so the exact timing of my maternity leave was uncertain. Schedules had to be adjusted around the event. I realize that maternity leave is a burden to employers, but it is a federal law and for the good of all mankind. Those 12 weeks of leave were a whirlwind of change and, as the time dwindled, I became increasingly anxious about how to work what I now realized would be two full-time jobs.

When I returned to the veterinary hospital I was a different person. I was responsible for a little one who mattered more to me than anything else in the world, and it changed the order of my priorities.

First and foremost, I am a wife and a mother. When my child needs me, I'm going to be there. My role as veterinarian is now a few tiers down, but when I am at work, I'm focused and committed to my coworkers, clients, patients and duties.

The first few months were hard. I did my best to perform on three to six hours of sleep. I needed to take time out to breast pump twice during the workday. I went home exhausted to resume the job of mothering and face the regret I felt about missing my child's development that day.

I am strictly bound by the hours of daycare and school. I have to leave on time to pick up my child. Therefore, the innate unpredictability of veterinary medicine has been one of the most challenging aspects of work to balance with being a mother. If I anticipate that a patient will need care beyond the time that I am scheduled, I prepare clients for the transfer of care. When necessary, I rely on being able to pass responsibility over to my colleagues and technicians. I extend my work time by making phone calls while I'm driving to pick up my child. When we get home, I'm all mom until I collapse into bed. I start my day at 4 a.m., finishing charts and answering emails before my family rises.

Occasionally, I receive calls from daycare or school that interrupt my work. Sometimes the issue is settled with a phone call. Sometimes I have to leave immediately to care for my child, in which case the schedule needs to be adjusted. This is an uncommon occurrence and the staff can usually still meet the needs of clients and patients. Clients are more understanding than we anticipate.

Sometimes my child gets sick, and I have to take a paid-time-off (PTO) day to stay home and care for him. Since most veterinarians receive production-based pay, anytime that I am not working, I am not paid.

I do share parenting responsibilities with my husband. Some evening and weekend hours at the hospital are actually attractive to me because I know that he will be available to care for our child. But overall, I'm not willing to work as many hours since becoming a mother. I work 30 to 35 hours a week and feel as though I'm torn between being a good parent and being a good veterinarian. Forty hours is feasible, but the 50- to 60-hour workweeks are long gone.

There are days when I arrive to an after-school event tired, wearing my scrubs and hoping I don't smell awful.

Many times I feel stuck in the middle trying to make everyone happy-my family, my clients, my employer-and it's stressful! There are days when I arrive to an after-school event tired, wearing my scrubs and hoping I don't smell awful.

I have less time for CE outside of work because of my family responsibilities, so I feel guilty that I'm not on top of my veterinary game. Attending a conference is particularly valuable now because I can focus on learning without distraction.

I find it difficult to make time to refuel my tank. I think this is true for many veterinarians. We spend our days and nights caring for clients, patients and family members, as well as keeping a home in order. By the time everything is done at the end of the day, there isn't much time to care for myself, but I'm a hard-working perfectionist so I wake up the next morning and do it all again.

Ultimately, I find peace when I accept the choices I've made. I serve my family at home and my clients, patients and coworkers at work to the best of my abilities. I accept myself for being imperfect-but I know I am an honest and dedicated doctor.  

Practice owner: I've got a business to run

While not unfamiliar with the challenges of parenthood, this veterinary employer needs everyone to pull their own weight so the practice will continue to run efficiently (and profitably).

I'm not unsympathetic. With my wife, I've raised two children and I understand what it means to be a parent. The job can be overwhelming-especially for a new parent-with too little sleep and parental responsibilities that seem to occupy every minute of every day. I really do understand that life is about more than just work and that nothing is more important than family.

As we focus on well-being in our profession, the stresses that come with parenthood are frequently sidelined in the discussion. I would love to see a world where every new parent gets a year off (with pay) to focus on their new baby. Someday we'll see our way clear to make that a reality in the United States.

Until that day comes, I've got a business to run.

Small businesses don't provide much slack when they're run efficiently. Every team member is important, and we try not to take on employees who don't pull their weight. My goal is to hire good people, put resources into training them and reward them financially for their productivity.

Like most veterinary practices, ours is a for-profit enterprise. Generating profit allows us to build a great team responsible for the excellent medical care we deliver. Profits also support our hospital infrastructure-the physical plant, new medical equipment and the updated information technology that has made our practice an attractive environment for all of us to work.

At the heart, we build clientele on trust. A successful veterinary practice isn't part of the gig economy but grows a relationship with clients that's sustaining. That means providing timely, compassionate and expert care-all at very reasonable prices. Meeting those competing expectations requires a careful balancing of resources to match them with our capabilities.

As a doctor, you're a critical component of a complex ecosystem of care. When you earned your degree you didn't just step up in status; doctors carry unique responsibilities, too. For now, women in particular will continue to fill a disproportionate share of childcare (and eldercare) roles. To make work life manageable, parents need flexibility. Practice owners need commitment. It won't work any other way.

I know that the days of 55-hour workweeks for veterinarians may be long past, but client demands have only increased.

I've worked in veterinary practice environments with nearly all-female workforces throughout my career. In the past few decades, female veterinarians have come to dominate our veterinary support teams, as well. I know that the days of 55-hour workweeks for veterinarians may be long past, but client demands have only increased.

We're in the retail-medicine business. Clients have come to expect convenience from consumer-facing businesses like ours and they drive our schedule. We need to fill those shifts, week in and week out.

I know that 12 weeks of parental leave is hardly enough, but it's a stretch for the rest of the doctors to cover those extra shifts. They have families, too. We'll manage through it, cheerfully, as long as you don't wait until the last week to let us know that you're not coming back at all.

I know you'd rather be home in the morning to send your kids off to school and be there for them when they get home in the afternoon. The likelihood is that the hours you'd most like to be at home are the same hours that most of our clients would rather schedule their visits-early in the morning, after work or on weekends.

I want to be fair to everyone. If I'm to equitably share the burden among my associate doctors, I need each of them to be willing and able to work some of those “emergency” shifts. I need you to be flexible enough to pick up shifts when one of your colleagues needs time off for an unscheduled event of their own, family or otherwise.    

When the daycare center calls you because your child is running a fever, it doesn't just create headaches for you-everyone has to adjust. There are appointments and procedures booked for you, and we've scheduled assistants, technicians and CSRs to support you. Now what?

If you've developed the rapport you need, many of your clients will understand and reschedule. Others, however, will be unhappy with the inconvenience-and creating unhappy clients isn't good for the practice. Some of your patients will need to be seen today regardless, so the other doctors will need to modify their schedules to fit them in. The day may run long or they miss lunch and they won't all be happy about that, either.

Relief doctors-necessary as they are-can't fully fill the gaps. One, because their schedules are often full and too inflexible to meet our needs. Two, on a production basis, they're expensive, and the more often we default to a relief doctor the less efficiently we run our practice.

I want you to be a leader and walk the walk. You're better-educated and better-paid than most of the people you work with and, although you may be younger, your team expects you to set an example. Regardless of whether you're on a partner track or acting as a supervisor or not, you're not just another coworker but a doctor.

You have a role and a responsibility to help us lead this practice. It works best for everyone if you're ready to match flexibility with commitment-happy to work harder or faster or later to allow everyone in the organization the room that personal responsibilities of whatever sort require. It's a two-way street. Quid pro quo.

Dr. Doug Aspros is chief veterinary officer for Veterinary Practice Partners, a practice owner in Westchester County, New York, a member of the board of directors for the Women's Veterinary Leadership Development Initiative, and former president of the AVMA. Dr. Heide L. G. Meier is medical director and Dr. Susan Jeffrey-Borger is associate veterinarian at Truesdell Animal Care Hospital and Clinic in Madison, Wisconsin.

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