Five ways the veterinary team can help new grads succeed

June 22, 2020
Kate Boatright, VMD

dvm360, dvm360 July 2020, Volume 51, Issue 7

Is your newest associate a brand new graduate? Every member of the veterinary team can play a role in helping these young veterinarians succeed.

With the class of 2020 completing their schooling—albeit in a nontraditional way—several thousand newly minted veterinarians are joining the workforce. The success of these young veterinarians depends on a supportive clinic environment. While many clinics have a plan for how current veterinarians will mentor their new colleagues, here are five ways that every team member can help these young doctors reach their full potential.

1. Understand the new graduate mindset

Most veterinary teams have experienced the changes that occur when a new doctor joins the team, but adding a recent graduate is quite different from adding an experienced veterinarian. To prevent misunderstandings and judgment of the decisions made by these young doctors, it is important for team members to understand the pressures and emotions they experience.

The transition from student to doctor happens overnight. It is simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying. For many, it is the culmination of a lifelong dream. Yet, despite four years of intensive study, many young veterinarians feel under-prepared for clinical practice. This can lead to an intense feeling of imposter syndrome, or the feeling of being a fraud.

These feelings are likely to be magnified in today’s graduates, whose clinical rotations were interrupted by COVID-19. Each student’s clinical rotation schedule is unique, so every graduate will have had different areas of their learning impacted by the change to virtual clinics.

In a 2018 DVM360 survey, veterinarians shared numerous areas of practice for which their schooling did not fully prepare them, including dentistry, behavior and nutrition. Additionally, many felt unprepared with regard to such nonclinical skills as leadership and managing workplace conflict.

In addition to the many emotions surrounding becoming a doctor, new graduates face an immense financial burden. Their student debt may cast a shadow over many of their personal decisions, such as buying a house or starting a family, and a production-based compensation model may only compound these concerns for young vets.

Some staff members may assume that the new doctor who recommends bloodwork over symptomatic treatment on every patient presenting with vomiting or diarrhea, no matter how acute or unremarkable the examination, has no idea what to do or is trying to “pad the bill” to help alleviate some of their financial concerns.

In truth, young veterinarians have not yet accumulated the broad experience base that allows them to rely solely on their physical examination skills and instincts. Additionally, they are coming from the “ivory tower” where gold standard care is established and practiced. As a result, many young doctors may rely more heavily on diagnostic testing, where an experienced doctor may be less likely to do so.

2. Be patient

New graduates will need more time than their more experienced colleagues to complete the same tasks. Most clinics provide extended appointment times for young veterinarians, especially with sick appointments and surgical procedures. Be respectful of this need and don’t overbook their schedule or rush them, as this may lead to mistakes.

There will be things your new veterinarian didn’t learn in school, many of which may seem like some of the most basic things, like how to treat an anal gland abscess or what a warble is. Young veterinarians may need to consult with their colleagues or look up treatment protocols when managing their cases. They may ask their technicians questions about how other doctors perform a procedure or handle a certain type of case.

Many times, they do in fact know the best way to proceed and are looking for confirmation of this from an experienced colleague. These young vets are well trained; they just need time to develop into the confident young doctors they are meant to be. This lack of confidence should never be interpreted as a lack of knowledge.

3. Help them establish a client base

One of the most important things that the veterinary team can do for their new doctor is to help them gain experience working with clients and patients by filling their schedule (but don’t overbook them!). Here are some other ways for the entire practice to help keep a new doctor well scheduled:

  • The clinic can make a point to advertise the arrival of its new veterinarian in local papers or on social media prior to their arrival.
  • Preferentially schedule new clients with the new doctor.
  • Established doctors and team members should make a point to make a personal introduction to “frequent flyer” and longtime clients.
  • Front desk staff should offer appointments with the new doctor. When a client calls in, simply stating “I have an opening with Dr. Boatright on Monday at 1 p.m.” can go a long way. Refer to them by name and as “our new graduate.”
  • If asked by an existing client about your new colleague, the team should respond positively to help clients build trust in the new associate.

Additionally, team members should share their knowledge of client and patient history and preferences. Veterinary teams often know the practice’s clients and patients better than veterinarians do. You know that Mrs. Smith doesn’t like to be in Room 1 because that’s where Fluffy was euthanized, Mr. Roberts wants all procedures to be performed in the room in front of him and Bella Turner will only allow her nails to be trimmed if the staff sing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” to her. Being equipped with this knowledge will help new graduates succeed and endear clients to them.

4. Give feedback—both positive and negative

Front desk staff or technicians are usually the final point of contact with clients during their visit. When checking out a client, make a point to ask them how their visit was and pass these responses along to your new doctor, especially if the client was particularly happy about the visit or gave a specific point of concern.

Celebrate your new graduate’s accomplishments. Hearing the excitement of my team when I completed my first C-section or made a tough diagnosis was a huge boost to my spirits. If your new doctor communicates well with clients in emotional situations or stays calm in the face of an upset client, let them know that you are impressed by their communication skills. Knowing what is going well will help new doctors continue to develop these skills and build confidence.

On the flip side, constructive criticism is important as well. Team members must be willing to give negative feedback to each other to establish and maintain a respectful working relationship. There are bound to be conflicts when any new doctor joins the team. They may not have been taught to do things the same way as the rest of the team.

If you have concerns about how a new veterinarian is managing cases, performing procedures or working with the staff, start a respectful conversation. If you are not comfortable discussing it directly with them, bring it up to one of the other doctors. Consider following up with the doctor to make sure the issue was addressed. Do not complain behind their back to other staff members and brew a toxic attitude toward the new team member. No one can change a behavior if they aren’t aware it is a problem, and knowing about problems in a timely manner will allow adjustments to improve the working relationships among staff members.

5. Model healthy boundaries

Anyone who works in the veterinary profession knows that mental health and personal wellness are a concern. Younger veterinarians were shown to have higher levels of psychological distress in the 2017 Merck Veterinary Wellbeing Study.

Developing boundaries is an essential part of personal wellness. It can be difficult for young professionals to set strong boundaries while they work to prove themselves, establish a client base, gain experience and start a life outside of school. Modeling appropriate boundaries is an important part of training the next generation of veterinarians.

Team members should encourage young doctors to set boundaries with clients. It can be tempting as a new veterinarian not to say “no” to clients who call late in the day with a sick pet or insist on coming in as a double-booked emergency for their dog’s ear infection. While we don’t want to upset clients, learning to set and stick to boundaries early on in a career will improve long-term mental health and help keep these young veterinarians enjoying their profession for years to come.

Finally, be respectful of boundaries around personal time. Some young veterinarians may need to be reminded how important it is to take time away from the clinic. Encourage them to do this. Do not call them on their days off. Most things can wait a day or two for them to return to the office. If it can’t wait, speak to another colleague and advise them of the situation when they return to the office.

Doing your part

Veterinary team members play a huge role in shaping the new graduate experience. By staying positive, remaining understanding, and providing encouragement and feedback, team members can help bond a young veterinarian to the practice and help them thrive in their career from the very beginning.

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