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Receptionists who shortchange your relief doctor are shorting your veterinary practice's bottom line.

I'll never forget the first time I heard a receptionist apologize to a client on the phone because Daisy's much-loved, much-licked veterinarian was on vacation. A relief veterinarian was covering appointments, so did the client still want to come in with her dog, or would she rather wait until the regular doctor returned?

Bruce E. Silverman, vmd

I was standing off to the side, trying to act relaxed, casually glancing through a magazine, but getting more and more upset as thoughts ran through my head.

"Geez, I studied for years, and I've been in full-time practice even longer. I once had clients filling my appointment book and sending cards and gifts on the holidays. I practice the best medicine I can. I'm honest. I keep up with my CE and read my journals. I dress professionally and speak warmly. I'm gentle with pets."

Then it got more personal, but it was a slippery slope and I couldn't seem to stop.

"I drive carefully, pay my bills on time, tell my parents I love them, give to charities, buy organic milk ... "

You can see where this was going. Just a little thoughtlessness or lack of training on the part of the receptionist, and my mind and the mind of Daisy's owner were clouded with doubt. The relationship that this client and her dog had with their veterinarian was built on a foundation of trust and comfort and an expectation that the doctor would recognize and meet the client's needs. Had it been an emergency, the client would have overcome any doubt and brought Daisy right over. "Anyone licensed to practice medicine should at least know the basics when it comes to life-or-death situations," the owner would reason. But today that wasn't the case, and the client had the luxury of waiting until her favorite veterinarian returned.

Meanwhile, the relief doctor (who apparently had no name, as far as the receptionist and client were concerned) had been hired at no small expense by the regular doctor to stand there flipping through a magazine to kill time.

To be honest, there's no perfect way to guarantee a busy schedule for your relief veterinarian. It's easier at practices that build relationships between clients and the hospital, not a specific doctor. Those clients usually don't care who sees them as long as the doctor seems competent.

No, relief veterinarians get undercut at hospitals with fewer doctors, where clients have a closer relationship with the veterinarian. Clients are more likely to have a preference for who cares for their beloved pets, or at least trust the staff to give them guidance on what to expect.

This is where the relief veterinarian's schedule falls squarely on the shoulders of the staff. True, the regular veterinarian can tell clients that the relief doctor will be filling in for the next week or two. But barring that, it's up to receptionists who book appointments or welcome clients at the front desk to offer everyone a warm introduction to "Dr. Silverman, our relief veterinarian" or "Dr. Silverman, one of our favorite covering doctors" or "Dr. Silverman, a veterinarian we're lucky to have helping out part-time" or "Dr. Silverman, whom Dr. Smith is happy to have covering for her today." Any upbeat combination of reassurance and familiarity will work.

When I hear a receptionist "selling" me on the phone or at the front desk, I smile ear to ear: "Yes, we'll see you and Daisy at 3 p.m., and I'm sure you'll like Dr. Silverman as much as we do." Then I know that Dr. Smith's bottom line won't be in the red while I'm on her watch.

Dr. Bruce E. Silverman is a relief veterinarian working toward an MBA from DePaul University in Chicago. Please send questions or comments to ve@advanstar.com

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