Have skills will travel


A relief career takes you from place to place, giving you the opportunity to experience practice in a different way. Yet this lifestyle isn't for everyone. Find out what skills and strategies will make this a successful career path for you.

Relief Veterinary Practice Isn't For everybody. Yet those who find it's their calling can enjoy a fulfilling, financially sustaining career. To achieve this goal, you must actively work at building a relief practice, just as you would work to build a general practice.

I spent two years doing relief work in southern Florida. It provided me with the opportunity to practice quality medicine and surgery while having control of my time, clients, and income. I found choices and freedoms I hadn't experienced elsewhere as an associate.

One major difference from general practice is that you work with another client in addition to the pet owner—the veterinarian you're covering for is also your client. So you must consider how to run a business that delivers excellent customer service to your client—the veterinarian. Here are six strategies to make your relief practice a success.

1. Market your services

Advertise in every publication that veterinarians in your area see, including veterinary association directories; telephone advertising directories for veterinarians; and veterinary magazines, newsletters, and journals. Professional classifieds are one of the first places your potential clients will look when they need a relief veterinarian.

Follow up your advertising efforts by sending out letters introducing your services. I sent letters out every six months, mostly to hospitals that hadn't contacted me for assignments. I gained new clients with each mailing.

The more satisfied clients I gained, the more recommendations I got. These referrals were a continuous source of new clients—and repeat business. A few clients even called me to find out what dates I had open before planning their vacations.

The bottom line: Don't be shy about promoting your work. Let everybody involved in the veterinary business know what you're doing. And think beyond hospital owners. People who work with many clinics—such as drug representatives, radiograph technicians, and employees of pet cemeteries—probably know more local veterinarians than you. These connections can be a huge asset when it comes to growing your clientele.

2. Set fair fees and know when to say no

Establish fees and rules that are fair for your client and for you. Then, be courteous but firm when explaining them to prospective clients. For example, if a potential client tells you that another relief veterinarian can do the job for less, simply smile and recommend that he or she hire the other veterinarian.

Even when you agree up front on fees, sometimes problems crop up on payday. If you aren't properly compensated in a timely manner for your work, find out why. Did you communicate effectively with this client and fulfill your part of the agreement? If you answer yes, then make a mental note to say "no" next time. Someone who doesn't pay you on time isn't someone you want to work with.

If you practice high-quality medicine, you'll find plenty of clients willing to pay well and promptly for your services. Avoid headaches with the minority that don't.

Also avoid practices with medical standards or ethics that interfere with yours—even if you need the business. The good news is there are very few hospitals where the health of animals isn't a top priority, so you'll rarely run into this situation.

3. Get your agreement in writing

While you don't need complicated contracts, you do need the details of your agreement in writing. A simple letter stating the terms of the job works well. Include the dates and hours of work, amount of compensation and when it will be paid, fees for additional time, and the specific tasks you'll be performing. Both you and the client should sign the letter, indicating your understanding and acceptance of the terms, and each keep a copy.

The skill set

I usually arranged a meeting with the owner before making a commitment. I asked about the practice philosophy, and more important, I observed how the veterinarians and staff members worked with each other and with their clients. This meeting also gave us an opportunity to discuss the skills and responsibilities of staff members, as well as how they handle referral cases, after-hours emergencies, and so on.

While these meetings weren't always possible, even a short phone conversation during which we talked about these topics was helpful. Above all, I always got the answer to this question: What specific responsibilities do you expect of me? I included the answer in the agreement letter.

I occasionally faced staying longer than was arranged in the letter. I was careful not to give away my services to careless clients, but I also tried to be fair. So I didn't obsess about charging for those 10 extra minutes I worked because the last appointment was a little bit late. When unusual situations do come up, though, the agreement letter provides protection.

For example, one Saturday morning, I arrived at a clinic I had arranged to work at until 3 p.m. Appointments were scheduled until 6 p.m. I decided to take care of all appointments and charge my client for every minute after 3 p.m., as stated in the letter, even though I could have left at the end of my commitment. This client paid closer attention to the letter of agreement on subsequent assignments.

Most clients don't ignore terms on a letter they sign, as doing so will cost them money or confrontations with unhappy pet owners and staff members. Sometimes clients need reminders, though.

4. Become an asset to your clients

Think about yourself as a problem solver. The hospital owner has a problem: A doctor will be temporarily unavailable. The solution: You. The next problem: It's stressful to know a stranger's taking care of your clients, and it can be difficult for staff members to work with a different doctor. Your solution: Quickly become a person that staff members and other doctors feel comfortable with and trust. When the regular veterinarian returns, he or she will receive good reports about you. You'll become an asset to that practice and the one they call on when the need comes up again.

5. Make the most of first impressions

Your first assignment with a client is your opportunity to make a good impression—and to assess whether this client could become a regular for you. Remember, you're trying to determine whether these shoes are a good fit for you, too. So when you complete the assignment, ask yourself: What quality of care were pet owners expecting? Were the staff members well-trained? How did employees behave without their boss looking over their shoulder? Were you paid promptly?

Tips for relief

Keep in mind, most hospitals won't be perfect in every way. So be reasonably generous with your assessment. I don't write off a potential client just because I found one fault, unless, of course, that fault conflicts with my standards of practice or my finances.

That first assignment is also your opportunity to show off. Pretend the practice is your practice—work as if this were your hospital, your staff members, and your clients. Get there on time, use your skills to benefit the hospital, and leave the team with a sensation of, well, relief.

6. Help other relief veterinarians

Other relief veterinarians in your area are allies, not competitors. Be willing to share information regarding fees and experiences with clients; you can all benefit from this information. Also, don't be scared to refer business to other relief veterinarians when you find that you're too busy. I remember getting a call from a hospital owner needing my services who said his relief doctor, who was fully booked, had recommended me. I did the same for that relief veterinarian, and others, when I was the one with more clients than time.

Of course, I don't advocate stealing clients, and I only worked with those doctors when their regular relief veterinarian wasn't available. The goal is to help out when you're needed. That goodwill can only help your career.

Dr. Brenda I. Santana was a relief veterinarian in southern Florida. She currently works at East Ridge Animal Hospital in Rochester, N.Y. Please send questions or comments to: ve@advanstar.com

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