When the doctor is NOT in

July 22, 2016
Shannon Alarcon

Our two-doctor veterinary show turned into a solo act when a DVM went out on a well-deserved maternity leave. Here are seven pieces of advice for other managers and teams living through a veterinarian's extended leave.

A doctor on leave? You got this, you awesome veterinary practice manager you. (Photo Getty Images)

Recently, our two-doctor hospital went down to one DVM when a mom went on her well-deserved maternity leave. But we wound up having one of our most productive months down one doctor. (Awesome, right?) Here's how:

Tell team members to take a break

7-day plan for managing a doctor's maternity leave

Day 1: Ask for team members to take vacation during the leave. Schedule it!

Day 2: Plan training and cross-training to add and improve team members' skills. Schedule it!

Day 3: Train all team members how to talk about the leave, how to accommodate clients and how to give clients and patients priority in this busy time. Train and retrain on these things to say.

Day 4: Train front-desk staff, especially, on when to single-book and double-book, how to handle walk-ins and what to say to clients about this busy time. Train and retrain.

Day 5: Pause to remember this is temporary and you'll all get through this if you use the time efficiency, keep clients top of mind, and treat everyone extra-nice. You can do this!

Day 6: Need to let go of underperforming team members? If you're fighting to find hours to give great team members, consider cutting the folks you should have a long time ago. Free them to find a better fit elsewhere.

Day 7: Like the Sabbath, these workdays need some rest for the doctor. Schedule busy days, but leave schedule breaks for frazzled doctors to clear their heads, eat and wrap up paperwork at the end of the day. Or go home early.

Because I expected appointments to be down with one doctor away, I encouraged staff members to take vacation during this time. Some took me up on it.

Tackle training

I made this break education, scheduling training time. This was a great opportunity to cross-train staff as well as work on weaknesses without the pressure of a frantically busy day. For example, a technician who wasn't comfortable with surgeries doubled up with a surgery-savvy technician and had time to learn without the rush usually associated with multiple doctors. I trained technicians on front-desk duties and vise versa. I delegated to my supervisors some of my management duties, so someday they can replace me and learn what it's like to manage staff and hospital operations.

Take care of your clients

Some clients preferred the doctor out on maternity leave and got frustrated. My staff and I were as tactful as we could be explaining this-after all, the new mother deserved her time off. You're going to be stressed about the change, but don't take it out on your clients, who deserve the best service possible and have grown to love the doctor on temporary leave. Don't burn bridges during this time.

Train the receptionists

To accommodate as many of our clients as possible, our remaining doctor juggled double- and triple-booked appointment slots, and often stayed late for emergency surgeries or last minute procedures. I appreciated all this extra effort and did my part to make sure the team was on target. Receptionists explained to clients the possibility of delays when scheduling. They politely offered walk-ins options: stay and wait, drop off the pet at no extra charge, or schedule for a later date. I carefully trained receptionists what types of appointments could be double-booked for efficiency and which ones required a single appointment slot.

Try to remember it's just temporary

My biggest advantage in managing one doctor's leave was the other doctor was a) able to handle the crazy caseload (with just a couple crabby days) and b) had herself been out twice on maternity leave twice so she had an idea of what to expect.

Take advantage of change

When change happens, it's a chance not just to hold the line but make changes. On the negative side, during the maternity leave, I had to lay off one staff member. On the positive side, it was a good time to let go of our kennel person who wasn't performing well. This opened up hours for more valuable team members to get paid for a little kennel work.

Treat your remaining doctors nicely

I often blocked out-no appointments!-the last 40 minutes of a day so the doctor could catch up, make calls or just go home early. We made it through with a great doctor, excellent team work, and myself working long hours (managers, you know the drill) to ensure the flow went as smoothly as possible.

Shannon Alarcon (Photo courtesy author)Shannon Alarcon is practice manager and co-owner of Bannock Animal Medical Center in Pocatello, Idaho.