Is relief veterinary medicine for you?

February 25, 2021
Kelsey Gustafson, Associate Editor

dvm360, dvm360 April 2021, Volume 54,

For some practitioners, the allure of relief work is great. Here's what to consider before making the transition from associate to relief veterinarian.

According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, the proportion of relief veterinarians in the workforce increased by 30% in the decade preceding 2018,1 concomitant with the increase in the number of actively working veterinarians. Today, more than 2300 relief veterinarians are practicing in hospitals across the United States.1

For many veterinarians, relief work offers the potential for better pay, less stress, and improved work-life balance. It also allows individuals to explore new opportunities and part ways with a toxic workplace at their discretion. At the Fetch dvm360® virtual conference today, Indiana relief veterinarian Tai Ogg, DVM, MPH, shared her insight on what to consider before making the transition.

Before you commit

Before making the leap to relief work, ask yourself these questions, which will serve as a guideline to provide you with next steps for your career shift:

  • Do you want to work full-time or part-time?
  • In what type of practice(s) do you want to work (general practice, emergency medicine, shelter, or a combination)?
  • Do you want to perform surgery or see only appointments?
  • Do you have any special skills?

“Do you do ultrasounds, endoscopies, or acupuncture, or are you certified in rehabilitation? These are all marketable skills that can certainly provide you within a niche market when moving forward as a relief veterinarian,” said Ogg.

Being an independent contractor

Most relief veterinarians are considered independent contractors. However, for those who are wary of managing the business aspects of relief work, there are companies that hire relief veterinarians, find local jobs for them, and handle the business side of things. But for those who want full control, becoming an independent contractor is the way to go.

“As an independent contractor, you determine the outcome of your work,” Ogg said. “You are being hired as a veterinarian, but you still get to choose how you practice medicine.” In other words, the practice can tell you what needs to be done but not how to do it.

One thing to keep in mind: Independent contractors must file a 1099 rather than a W-2 at tax time. Form W-2 establishes you as a practice employee, Ogg explained, and all necessary taxes (eg, Social Security, income tax) are deducted automatically from your pay, whereas a 1099 employee must pay their own taxes. But 1099 employees can write off several work-related expenses, from mileage to meals to business cards.

“Anything that you’re buying specifically for work you can write off,” she said. “This is a nice advantage come tax season, as these are things that you can’t deduct as a W-2 employee.” Ogg also recommends finding a certified public accountant who specializes in small businesses to help provide estimates for quarterly taxes. They can also help you decide whether to set yourself up as a limited liability corporation (LLC) or an S-corporation (S-corp). (Most states allow self-employed individuals to establish an LLC, but if this isn’t the case in your state then an S-corp may be your next best option.)

Setting boundaries

Setting boundaries is crucial for everyone involved and should be established from the start for both associate and relief veterinarians, Ogg said. “This is especially important for relief veterinarians, so that they don’t end up in a situation that is either uncomfortable or ethically and morally compromised,” she said. Veterinarians should consider the hours they want to work, the procedures they want to perform, when they want to take lunch, how much time they need for appointments, and their protocol if they need to stay later than planned.


For individuals who have a hard time setting boundaries, she recommends having a contract in place that outlines your relationship with each clinic. Contracts make it easier to enforce your rate, cancellation policy, overtime policy, and other requirements, and ideally should be in place for all relief veterinarians.

Choose your rate

One of the other major considerations is determining your rate, which is based on both geography and personal preference. Your rate should take into account monthly expenses including health insurance, licensure fees, liability insurance, disability insurance, business expenses, and desired disposable income. Next, determine whether you’re going to charge daily or hourly rates. Ogg advises seeking out other local relief veterinarians to see what they earn; most are more than willing to share their experiences. She also recommends charging different rates for weekends, holidays, overnights, and emergency department shifts.

The bottom line

Relief veterinary work can be very rewarding. “Before I transitioned to relief, I was ready to leave the profession. I had that feeling of never really fitting in, like [I was] a square peg trying to fit into a round hole,” Ogg said. “I don’t have that feeling anymore as a relief veterinarian. It’s nice being able to help practices out that really need it.”

Ogg’s final piece of advice: “Most veterinary practices just want you to fit in with their staff. If you work to fit in, the rest will follow. You will get repeat bookings, the practice’s clients and staff will be happy, and you will enjoy the work.”

Reference

  1. Burns K. Relief practice not just a temporary gig. American Veterinary Medical Association. November 14, 2019. Accessed February 25, 2021. https://www.avma.org/javma-news/2019-12-01/relief-practice-not-just-temporary-gig
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