You can be the (nearly) perfect veterinary technician
A successful career is about more than perfect catheter placement. Discover what veterinarians want most from their technicians-then use this list of seven habits to put your career on the fast track.
Not long after leaving a technician position that I'd worked at for years, my former boss told me something that surprised me. She said I was half perfect. Well, maybe she didn't say it quite like that. She did, however, say that if she combined my skills and those of the other credentialed technician I worked with, we would make the perfect technician.
The comment started me thinking. And I'm still thinking about it today. Although I know I'm not perfect at my job or, well, at life sometimes, is it OK to settle for being perfect just 50 percent of the time? I certainly wouldn't want to serve a homemade dessert to dinner guests if it were 50 percent delicious. Nor would I be proud to have finished only 50 percent of a marathon I trained to run. And I most certainly wouldn't allow my children to play with Matilda, our Staffordshire bull terrier, if her sweet disposition was only reliable 50 percent of the time.
So I began to wonder, what are the traits I need? What are the personal or professional tools every technician should possess? Are there some habits or qualities that are deal breakers? I spoke with numerous veterinarians and found that most of them look for similar qualities in their technicians, although each doctor weighed these qualities differently. Still unsure of the formula for perfection, I compiled a list of qualities that veterinarians find important, all the while wondering, is there even such a thing as a perfect technician? Let's take a look at the list, see what they said—and see if it's you (or your colleague):
1. Think beyond technical skills.
When your boss hired you, he or she assumed you possessed certain skills—venipuncture, animal restraint, surgery preparation, and surgical instrument sterilization, to name a few. But sometimes it's important to remember that these skills probably weren't the only reason your boss hired you. And even harder to remember, those skills, though essential, may not be what your boss values the most in you.
Sure, your ability to draw blood from a one-legged calico cat with no restraint will no doubt "wow" your boss. But there are other things that are vital to your success in the eyes of your supervisor.
2. Choose a positive attitude.
Attitude is one word each of the veterinarians I spoke with used when I asked them to describe their ideal technician. If you find yourself rolling your eyes as you read this word that always seems to pop up at team meetings, you may be in need of a new one.
Dr. Howard Barnes of Del Lago Veterinary Hospital in Scottsdale, Ariz., has a work motto: Attitude is everything. Regardless of the situation, he says, your attitude will play a significant role in the result. If you're trying to learn—or even teach—a new skill, possessing the right attitude could make the difference in how quickly you—or the new technician you're training—will pick up the skill.
Dr. Dean Rice of Rice Veterinary Services in Chandler, Ariz., warns his staff that attitudes are contagious. He believes that low morale from even one employee can easily infect the rest of the team. He jokingly calls it a "staff infection." Although I admit I have not always been immune to the bug, luckily I made a full recovery. Dr. Rice also believes that good attitudes are contagious and prefers to hire and keep technicians with good attitudes. He likes those technicians to remain happy with their jobs—and his pay reflects this.
Having a great attitude at the start, middle, and end of your day will make you a great employee—and great co-worker, for that matter. Best-case scenario: You become that awesome technician every veterinarian in the office wants by his or her side during stressful times. Worst-case scenario: You become that awesome technician every veterinarian wants by his or her side during stressful times.
3. Ditch these bad habits.
Now that you know the importance of attitude, let's examine some of the traits that many veterinarians don't appreciate:
• Habits that can't be changed. At one point or another, most of us have worked with someone who's been a technician since the Eisenhower administration who may be somewhat … well, let's say, set in his or her ways. Or maybe he or she is flat-out incapable of trying something different or seeing things from a new perspective simply because, "We've always done it this way." And by this way they mean their way, the right and only way.
Just ask veterinarians who've been practicing for more than 10 years if they're still using the same induction drugs they used when they graduated. Most veterinarians will probably tell you no. The changes in veterinary medicine over the past 30 years have helped our companion animals live healthier, longer lives and allowed the veterinary field to grow. Does anyone remember their practice before reversible induction agents or digital radiography? A great technician must become comfortable with the idea that change is going to happen and be OK with it.
• Breaking the trust. Many of the veterinarians I spoke with also don't want to work with a technician who's lost the trust of their co-workers or supervisors. An untrustworthy technician is like an untrustworthy German shepherd: Most veterinarians would rather do without either one in their clinic.
Because most animal hospitals rely heavily on members of their support team, the veterinarian has no choice but to trust you until you prove otherwise. In this way, it's very easy to gain the trust of your employer.
However, it's also easy to lose that trust—and nearly impossible to regain. I once worked with a very experienced technician we'll call Peter who possessed amazing technical skills but accidentally gave a sick animal 10 times the indicated dose of an antibiotic. Although the animal wasn't harmed and the dosage was immediately corrected when another technician discovered the mistake, Peter was too scared—or maybe too proud—to admit his error.
Because of the way he handled the error, the other technicians never fully trusted Peter again. He gave his letter of resignation within a few weeks. Neither of the two veterinarians on staff asked him to reconsider leaving. What Peter failed to realize was that the true offense was not the error he made—it was a mistake that most of us could have made at some point in our careers—it was the way he handled it. Most veterinarians will admit they've made mistakes in their careers, and they realize technicians will make mistakes too. Many may feel that the way in which the animal health care professional—veterinarian, receptionist, veterinary assistant, or technician—handles the mistake will often reveal the true character of that team member.
You can maintain the trust by always being completely honest with your supervisor regarding your mistakes or oversights, no matter how hard that conversation may be. Taking responsibility for your mistake instead of covering it up, in the long run, will help your relationship with your supervisor.
• The inability to grow with a practice. Like most other professions, veterinary medicine—as well as its clients and even the types of pets we see across animal hospitals everywhere—have changed tremendously in the past 20 years. A good technician understands the importance of flexibility in the workplace and can learn to live with—and embrace—change.
Know that although each veterinary hospital is unique, there are two things that are usually the same: Veterinarians want to enjoy coming to work, and veterinarians want to know that their practice will continue to be productive. If employees regularly threaten either of these, their days at that hospital may be numbered. No matter how skilled these technicians are or how invaluable they seem to the daily workings of the office, remember that just about everyone is replaceable.
4. Anticipate the next step.
Dr. Kevin Wright of Wright Bird and Exotic Animal Hospital in Mesa, Ariz., says, "A good technician will anticipate what I need, even if I don't know it yet."
According to Dr. Wright, a technician who's not only able to solve an existing problem but is familiar with what might solve a potential problem is a valuable asset to any practice—someone Dr. Wright calls his Radar O'Reilly, the clever company clerk from TV's "M*A*S*H."
For example, a good technician may notice that a patient in recovery after surgery appears cold or painful and make the attending doctor aware of the animal's condition. A great technician will find the correct dose of the usual pain medications employed by the veterinarian or begin warming towels or water bottles before asking the veterinarian if that dose of medication or that method of thermoregulation is appropriate.
5. Be good to others.
I've met more than one amazing technician whose technical skills and ease with clients made them virtually perfect on their best days. But one of these technicians would bring less experienced team members to tears for the smallest infraction on her worst days. Another exceptionally skilled technician I knew regularly showed up late for her shift—if she showed up at all.
Although technically gifted in most areas, if your skills, your presence, or even just your mood aren't consistent, these fatal flaws combine to make you far from perfect.
6. Bring the fun.
It's just like that catchy song from the 1980s says, veterinarians just want to have fun. Well, maybe not all veterinarians and certainly not all the time. But by and large, everyone wants their job to be fun. If you don't believe this, just think about the last time you were licked on the nose by a puppy, you coaxed a grumpy old cat into purring, or you helped encourage a newborn pup to inhale its first breath.
Remember the reason you pursued a career working with animals is because it's fun in one way or another. Because you can't always count on a sweet puppy to come to your practice for daily team face-licking, there will be days that you may have to work to see the humor in things. Keep your sense of humor in check—and possibly a whoopee cushion nearby—just in case an emergency giggle is needed.
7. Do your best and accept the rest.
When I asked one veterinarian if he'd ever worked with a perfect technician, he said, "Have you ever worked with a perfect veterinarian?" It made me realize that it's OK if you're not perfect—and nobody really is.
To this day I still have "Bad Blood Days," and I know now that I will probably never hold the title of Fastest Catheter Placer in the West. However, I continue to try to improve, no matter how futile it seems some days. Still, on my best days I think I'm edging closer to 100 percent versus that 50 percent mark at being the perfect technician.
And on my worst days? I make sure I still have that whoopee cushion nearby, I tell myself to smile, and I remind myself that attitudes really are everything.
Susan Logan, BS, CVT, lives in Gilbert, Ariz., with her husband, Brian, and their two daughters. When she's not writing or spending time with her two- and four-legged children, she teaches animal anatomy and physiology. Share your thoughts about this article at dvm360.com/community.