The Right Help at the Right Time

August 24, 2017
Meredith Rogers, MS, CMPP

Veterinarians Money Digest, August 2017, Volume 1, Issue 3

A look at veterinary relief work from both the practice's and the practitioner's perspectives.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the veterinary profession is growing faster than the average for all professions. As the number of veterinary hospitals grows to meet the increasing demands of pet owners, the need for relief veterinarians is only expected to increase.

Relief veterinarians fill a need for clinics that are temporarily short staffed, allowing for a practice to stay MS, CMPP open when it might otherwise need to close or cut back on appointments, which can have a significant impact on the bottom line. Being a relief veterinarian can satisfy a desire to practice medicine on a flexible schedule, which can help establish a healthy work-life balance.

Whether you are looking to hire a relief veterinarian or want to become one, you don't need to do it alone. Although you can use direct advertising, such as classified ads, numerous agencies that connect veterinarians to practices have popped up in recent years. Because the need for a relief veterinarian often arises at the last minute, employment agencies provide convenient databases of veterinarians with searchable qualifications. However, word-of-mouth is one of the most common ways veterinarians connect with practices looking for help, and once a practice has found a veterinarian who is a good fit, that person is at the top of the list whenever extra help is needed.

Here we present relief work from both a practice owner’s perspective and the perspective of a veterinarian who has been providing freelance services for years.

Challenge: You own a thriving practice, and everything is going well — until you get a call from your best associate. She has an amazing opportunity to travel to Africa to work with endangered species for three months, and she wonders if she could take a leave of absence. You don’t want to crush her dream, but she’s an integral member of your staff. How will you cover her client load, not to mention everything else she does for the practice?

Solution: Hire a Relief Veterinarian

A relief veterinarian is a licensed practitioner who fills in when a regular associate is absent. Think of relief veterinarians like substitute teachers. The need may be for only a day (e.g., if someone calls in sick) or for several months (e.g., maternity leave). A relief veterinarian may also be a good option if your practice sees a significant seasonal uptick in clients — for example, if the population swells as the temperature rises in a resort town or during foaling season in thoroughbred country. By not hiring a permanent associate, you avoid a substantial financial commitment in the form of payroll and benefits, and you don’t need to worry about keeping the person busy during slow periods.

The duties of relief veterinarians vary with the hiring practice, but in general they must be able to perform the same functions as the absent associate. Thus, if you have an equine practice, you don’t want to hire a relief veterinarian whose experience is with small animals only. Moreover, you’ll need not only to communicate your medical protocols but also provide insight into your clinic culture, which is the most difficult aspect to convey to someone who will work there for only a few days. For example, if the majority of your clientele expects extensive diagnostics for seemingly minor issues, inform the relief veterinarian, because this may be a challenge if he or she is used to a more frugal approach.

As a practice that hires relief veterinarians, you need to be aware of the many legal and tax ramifications involved. How the government distinguishes between independent contractors and employees is not clear-cut. For example, a veterinarian who fills in for a few weeks at your clinic and then moves on is likely contracting, but one who regularly works for you even once a week might be considered an employee. Not understanding the difference can result in the practice being liable for past income, FICA, unemployment insurance and other taxes, as well as benefits and retirement account contributions.

Practice Profile: We Hire Relief Veterinarians

Mark Helfat, DVM, owns Larchmont Animal Hospital, a state-of-the-art small animal practice in Mount Laurel, New Jersey, that provides a full line of veterinary services for dogs, cats and other small mammals; the practice also examines and treats farm animals, such as goats, sheep and cattle. Opened in 2000, the practice today consists of Dr. Helfat, a veterinarian who works two days a week, two technicians and boarding kennel staff. As a member of the American Veterinary Medical Association Board of Directors, Dr. Helfat often travels, necessitating the hire of a relief veterinarian on a regular basis. Veterinarian’s Money DigestTM spoke with him about the ins and outs of working with relief veterinarians.

How do you find relief help?

I have been using relief veterinary services for about 15 years. I have found most people through word-of-mouth from other practices and currently have two people I readily call on. As a member of the South Jersey Veterinary Medical Association, I am in contact with other veterinarians in the area, and we share names of people we’ve worked with who we’ve liked. Occasionally, someone will come into the office and drop off a card. I’ve looked at the classified ads on the JAVMA website, and they are sometimes helpful, too. Even though I give about two months’ notice, it can still be difficult to fill shifts due to people’s schedules.

I have learned to take time in hiring a relief veterinarian. First and foremost, the person must be competent. But, he or she must also get along with my staff and clients. I generally go on first impressions; taking the person out to lunch is a good way to get to know him or her.

How do you retain good relief help?

I compensate them well. I pay an hourly wage, and if they go over the allotted time — for example, staying late to address a walk-in — I pay for the extra time. I also let them use the practice and surgical suite to treat their own pets, and allow them to board their own animals in our kennel at no charge. These perks are greatly appreciated.

How do you provide compensation?

I hire relief help as employees, which means that I take out all payroll deductions, and they get a W-2 at the end of the year. Because I make the appointments, I feel they are more employees than independent contractors. This seems to be the safest legal way to go, at least in New Jersey.

What are the qualities of a good relief veterinarian?

Good relief veterinarians must have the experience to work comfortably on their own, so I don’t hire someone just out of school. The person must be able to walk in the door and get along with the staff, which is not always easy, and clients need to feel they can trust the person. I listen to my staff and clients, and I will not hire someone back if I’ve received unfavorable feedback about him or her.

Do your clients accept the person? Overall, most of my clients prefer me, but I have found that some request the relief veterinarian, which I don’t see as a a bad thing. That just means I hired well.

Challenge: You’ve been working in small animal practice since you graduated from veterinary school. After working for a number of practices over the years, you now feel like taking a step back. You don’t want to give up seeing patients entirely because you enjoy it, but you’d like more time to pursue other interests, like writing the great American novel.

Solution: Become a Relief Veterinarian

If you decide that becoming a relief veterinarian fits in with your career goals, you will join the ranks of the independent contractor, the self-employed, the freelance — a rapidly growing segment of the workforce. Because of the fluidity of the work, it is difficult to know precisely how many veterinary professionals are considered independent contractors, but decade-old data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics assigns the designation to be 7 percent to 8 percent of the overall employed population.

Not every good veterinarian makes a good relief veterinarian. The role requires that you not only possess the prerequisite skills but also adapt quickly to unfamiliar staff, clients, work styles and overall clinic culture. A good relief veterinarian is respectful of how the clinic normally operates and doesn’t assume to know better or undermine normal clinic routine.

Relief veterinarians are often (but not always) paid under an IRS 1099 form, and someone must carry the insurance and pay the taxes. If you are considering becoming a relief veterinarian, you should understand the difference between a sole proprietorship and an LLC [limited liability corporation], as well as learn how to negotiate contracts, write invoices and excel at record keeping, just like any other small business requires.

Lisa Trachtenberg, VMD, is a practicing small animal veterinarian in the southern New Jersey area. A 2001 veterinary school graduate, she has been doing relief work for the past eight years. Dr. Trachtenberg shared with Veterinarian’s Money DigestTM her experience doing relief work.

Why did you start doing relief work?

I started when I had my first child. I didn’t want to work full time, and relief work was a way to make extra money. Now that my kids are older, I work part time at one clinic and also have steady relief work that keeps me busy while still allowing me time to enjoy my family.

How do you find relief jobs?

Over the years, all my assignments have come through word-of-mouth. If you are a good relief veterinarian — meaning you are not just good at medicine but can also adapt to a practice and are friendly — people recommend you. I currently do relief work at only one practice that calls me first whenever they need help, but I used to work at several practices that knew they could rely on me. I have found that relief veterinarians are in high demand, and good ones should not have difficulty finding work.

Do the clients accept you?

I haven’t really had a problem with clients not accepting me. Because a lot of scheduling is done in advance, clients who are uncomfortable with a substitute usually reschedule. I have actually found the opposite — that clients like me so much they want to follow me to my regular practice. I don’t encourage this or tell them where I am, but with the internet, it’s easy to find out.

Is it hard to adapt to different ways of doing things?

I find that the staff at the hospital I am entering is grateful for the help, so they are very accommodating and open with information. For example, the technicians will often give me some background about a given client and patient before I enter the exam room. There are times when I wish I could do something in a way that differs from the clinic norm, but on the flip side, it helps if the clinic has protocols so that I don’t have to think about certain decisions, such as whether I should do this or that diagnostic test.

What’s the best things about doing relief work?

I enjoy seeing how each clinic works, both in terms of practicing medicine and managerially. I’ve learned a lot at each place I’ve worked, both good ways of doing things and also things not to do. Also, because a relief job can turn into part-time or full-time employment, it gives you a chance to observe a given practice and for them to see how you operate, to make sure it’s a good fit before committing to each other. That’s how I got my current part-time job.

What have you found to be the most challenging aspects of relief work?

I miss following up on certain clients, seeing the outcomes. I had one assignment where I had to keep trying to get paid. Needless to say, I didn’t return there, and I let colleagues know that the practice was difficult in that way. Word-of-mouth and reputation work both ways.

Do you recommend relief work?

Yes! It’s quite possible these days to make a living just doing relief work. In many cases, you can charge more per hour than you can working full or part time. If a number of clinics know they can call on you, you can have steady work — although in that case, scheduling across multiple clinics can be challenging. However, I would not recommend relief work for someone just out of school, because you often work alone, and you don’t have the opportunity to learn from working up a case from start to finish.

Meredith Rogers has a BS degree in animal health from the University of Connecticut and an MS degree in microbiology and molecular genetics from Rutgers University. She has more than 19 years of experience creating content for a variety of health care audiences. She lives in Kingston, New Jersey, and shares her life with a horse, a dog and a cat.

Reference:

  • Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, The Economics Daily, Independent contractors in 2005 on the Internet at https://www.bls.gov/opub/ted/2005/jul/wk4/art05.htm (visited May 14, 2017).
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