Volunteers in veterinary practice can pose problems


You don't have to be a veterinarian for very long before it happens to you.

You don't have to be a veterinarian for very long before it happens to you.

Some middle-aged client mentions it at the end of an office visit; afriend takes you aside at a picnic or cocktail party. Maybe your cousincalls you up out of the blue.

"Dr. Thompson," they plead, "my son (daughter, nephew,grandchild) is in high school and really wants to become a vet. Do you think(s)he could come by and hang around and help out at your clinic?"

No matter what your status in practice, the question nearly always presentsa problem. If you own the practice, you worry about whether your insurancewill cover you in the event that an accident occurs in which the volunteeris injured. If you are an associate, you hope your boss will accommodatethe request because you'd really like to help out the requesting client(relative or friend).

This question comes up very frequently and should be addressed squarelywhenever it does. There are a million good reasons why a young person, especiallyone seriously considering going into some aspect of the veterinary profession,should have an opportunity to discover the realities of the work. Volunteeringat a practice helps a young person sort out the realities of the job fromthat which is imagined or idealized.

Taste of experience

Volunteering at a practice serves a multitude of ends for the volunteer.

While many high school students want to do it because they think thata veterinarian's day is full of playing with four-legged fluffy balls offun, they quickly learn that practice is hard, demanding work requiringdedication and commitment. College students usually want to volunteer becausethey believe that the experience will enhance the appearance of their applicationto veterinary school. Depending on how much weight a specific school attachesto quantitative factors, a volunteer experience may or may not be helpful.

Nonetheless, there is one aspect of volunteering in a practice that isof inestimable value for students. That aspect is what I like to refer toas the "recommitment reality check." Volunteering lets a persondiscover what he is getting into before he is in so deeply that he cannotescape.

Years ago, one rarely came across a disenchanted private veterinary practitioner.It also wasn't that common to find a practicing veterinarian who was perpetuallyshort on money. Nowadays, it is not unusual to meet practitioners of bothsmall and large animal medicine who are both disenchanted and chronicallyin debt. It is my opinion that a good pre-veterinary volunteer or otherwork experience can go a long a way toward reversing this trend.

As I speak to veterinarians throughout the country, I find that thereis a disturbing trend developing. Many college graduates with excellentgrades and test scores are entering veterinary college without any meaningfulexposure to the nuts and bolts of private veterinary practice.

These students enter an expensive graduate program believing that veterinarymedicine is a 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. job. They are confused into thinking thatours is an animal business and not first and foremost a people business.Further, without spending time around veterinarians, such aspirants neverhear about the fact that veterinary medicine can be a tough way to makea buck.

So, let's look at the volunteer issue more closely and see how we mighthelp (without getting ourselves into trouble) the next generation of practitionersfind out what it is they are getting into. I believe that arranging forclinical experience before entering veterinary school is by far the bestway to prevent the graduation of a large number of debt-burdened, unhappydoctors who owe too much to enter an alternate career.

What's the problem?

What are the main problems associated with allowing volunteers to "hangout" in your practice in order to see just what it's all about?

The logistical issues are, of course, one problem. It is important foranyone in a veterinary hospital to know why they are there, what they areallowed to do and what their schedule is. This applies with particular urgencyto workers, paid or unpaid, who do not have experience and training beforeworking in the practice. Untrained persons must be warned of all danger,particularly the inherent dangers animals present. They must also understandclearly that they must stay out of the way during surgery, emergencies andother time-critical situations.

Questions remain

Aside from logistics, however, there are a number of legal questionsthat surround the use of volunteers. I will outline several of these questionsin this article and in the second part of the series. I will also provideinformation as to where clinic owners and others can go for specific legaland insurance guidance before taking on a volunteer.

Legal status?

Probably the number one legal problem in taking on a volunteer is identifyingthe nature of that person's legal status with regard to the practice premises.

Generally speaking, persons present in the workplace fall into one ofa specific number of categories recognized by the law. There are owners,of course, and there are employees. Clients and family members visitingpets are looked upon as business invitees; that is, their presence is soughtby the business to further its objective of generating profit. Suppliersof oxygen tanks and X-ray repairmen are generally independent contractorspresent for a business purpose. But what exactly is the legal status ofa volunteer "observer" who is present in the bowels of the hospitalfor no legitimate business reason?

Murky insurance law

Volunteers fall into a murky netherworld in insurance law in which theyare often recognized as the worst of all possible worlds: Volunteers arenot clients and are not present to augment the profitability of the business.They are also not employees and protected by the many laws designed to protectworkers in the workplace. Yet, they are present for protracted periods inareas of the clinic where they have an above-average likelihood of becominginjured. Worst of all, they do not have the ongoing attention of a staffmember, as is usually the case with visiting pet owners. This means thatthere is no one paying attention, repetitively warning them not to sticktheir fingers in the cages.

Insurance coverage

Insurance coverage is also a matter of concern. If a client is injuredas a result of poor animal restraint, it is reasonable to look to malpracticeor general liability coverage to settle the claim.

Employees are covered by workers' compensation insurance and usually,statutory disability coverage. Perhaps the volunteer might be covered bygeneral liability insurance covering the building, but this is by no meansautomatic or certain.

Further, even if that coverage does apply, there may be no bar whatsoeverto suit by a volunteer or his or her family for long-term disability andloss of wages resulting from a serious injury that exceeds the building'scoverage limits.

Author's note: In the second of this two-part series, we will reviewsome guidelines for clinics in making the decision as to whether to takeon volunteers in the veterinary practice. We will also highlight some questionsthat should be posed to insurance agents and underwriters before a volunteercomes on board.


Dr. Allen is a partner in Associates in Veterinary Law, P.C., a lawpractice specializing in business and legal counsel for veterinarians andtheir families. He can be reached at www.veterinarylaw.com or call (607)648-6113.

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