Veterinarians might consider it a source of pride to be ranked consistently as one of the nation's most trusted professions, but earning that honor doesn't come without effort.
Conduct that brings public esteem is part of the work ethic of successful practitioners, instilled in them from the time they're in veterinary school, experts say. The following lists outline the most important work habits of successful DVMs, according to a practice consultant and a veterinary college professor.
Honesty tops the list for Dr. James E. Guenther, a practice-management consultant in Asheville, N.C., associated with Dallas-based Brakke Consulting Inc. It also ranks first with Dr. Michael Schaer, professor and associate chair at the University of Florida's veterinary college.
Guenther, a 1970 graduate of The Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine, was an associate at an equine and small-animal facility in Cleveland for two years after graduation, then owned and managed Biltmore Veterinary Associates in Asheville, N.C., for 25 years. After completing a dual MBA/MHA program through Pfeiffer University in Charlotte, he helped launch and, until 2002, was manager of the Regional Emergency Animal Care Hospital (REACH) in Asheville. He joined Brakke Consulting in 1999.
Based on those 37 years of experience, Guenther considers other work habits of successful veterinary practitioners to include:
- Ethical behavior. "Right now we're seeing a lot of unethical behavior in the world of professional sports — in baseball, football, basketball and cycling," he says. "But to be successful, one doesn't have to cheat or 'game' the system. Honesty is at the essence of what a veterinarian should be, and that's why we're always high in the polls on public trust."
- Good communication skills. "I always tell practice owners that good communication with clients and peers — without sounding threatening — is at the foundation of a successful practice."
- Flexibility. "Instead of a 'my way or the highway' philosophy, to be successful we must be willing to adjust our thinking and attitudes. Change is always with us — in technology and other aspects of practice. We have to be flexible, adapt to it, roll with the punches and be an effective leader."
- Decisiveness. "Don't become paralyzed when there's a decision to make. Veterinarians run into trouble when they put off making key decisions, believing they must have all the facts or, at the other extreme, make knee-jerk decisions based on gut feeling without any facts. Instead, I tell clients to gather as much information as they can and then make an informed decision. If you're wrong, admit it. We don't live in a perfect world."
- Understanding finances. "I can't overstate the importance of learning to read and understand income statements, balance sheets and cash-flow statements. Practitioners who can do that usually succeed. It's the way you monitor your success. If you don't understand, admit it and seek help from an accountant or consultant. This is an area that's traditionally been neglected in academics, but some schools today are doing better."
- Hire the best people. "Especially in the past, some practitioners tended to hire people who liked animals but didn't always like people. That rarely worked. We're in a people business, so you'll do better if you surround yourself with those who not only are competent in practice but have good people skills."
- Get involved in practice management. "... We're in a client-service business. Practice management is an art. It involves dealing with people, not just practicing medicine. To succeed, we need to do both."
- Invest wisely. "Veterinarians traditionally viewed their practice as their retirement fund, assuming it would sell for enough to fund a happy retirement. But we see that practices aren't selling for what they used to, so successful practitioners invest wisely. Then, when you finally sell the practice, that will be the icing on the cake and not the cake itself."
- Don't take yourself too seriously. "Veterinary medicine is just a means to have a life. Enjoy the ride and don't try to be perfect in everything. We as vets are here to help and do the best we can, but perfectionist behavior leads to stress and unhappiness."
- Be trustworthy. "This might go back to our No. 1, honesty, but to enlarge on that, successful veterinarians make sure people know they can be counted on. It simply means doing what you say you'll do and when you'll do it. Always be a person of your word."
As a teacher of veterinary students, Schaer, DVM, Dipl. ACVIM, Dipl. ACVECC, points out that he's at the opposite end of the spectrum and views the path to success from a similar but somewhat different perspective.
Agreeing with Guenther that honesty and ethical behavior are the cornerstone of success, Schaer offers the following eight additional qualities and work habits he believes DVM students must have to succeed:
- A solid foundation of knowledge.
- The ability to use acquired knowledge effectively. Through processes called problem prioritization and differential diagnoses, Schaer says he and other DVM faculty are able to measure how well students can apply classroom knowledge. They're asked to prioritize various patient issues, and then formulate a diagnosis that is compatible with the most serious complaint.
- Good communication skills. "The importance of communicating well with animal owners, referring vets and everyone else in the practice environment can't be overstated."
- Good interpersonal skills. "To be successful, students must learn to get along well with others. They should treat technicians and other staff members as equals — as part of a team that has the common goal of making animals well and being rewarded for it."
- Continuing education (CE). "Students should thirst for knowledge, continuing to acquire it after graduation through CE courses and independent study. That process never ends for a successful veterinarian."
- Good public-relations skills. "After graduation, students will do better in practice if they become active and visible in their communities. That is part of how they represent the profession and help to elevate it."
- A touch of humanity. "We want students to be ready to help those who might not have the means to provide urgent care for an animal. Through ingenuity or simple generosity, veterinarians at times give of themselves in a reasonable way when it's needed."
- Compassion. "Always, always have compassion."