Is your veterinary training program a train wreck?


Managers, I went from nearly 100 percent turnover to 0 percent. What changed? Meand how I trained new team members.

Let's talk about the two ways I derailed our team training first-so you don't make the same mistakes I did. I was promoted from veterinary assistant to manager with little leadership experience. I was an expert in the area of technical abilities and knowledge, but my leadership abilities sucked. Worse, I inherited employees with patterns of tardiness, bad attitudes, theft of company property and other crappy behaviors. 

My struggles with these employees were extensive and, well, that's a story for another day. Basically, we told them to ditch these behaviors or we'd ditch them. Then they got to choose whether they wanted to play with the new team or find a new path. Next task: Hiring and training some rock star veterinary assistants. 

My first failed training program: Hire an employee quickly without outside input, give the new employee a day or two of training and dump the employee into exam rooms.

The perceived advantage: a quick return to normal numbers of employees, which should reduce overtime and increase efficiency.

The reality: The only benefit is false hope. What happens to that employee, who is immediately thrown into an overworked, stressful environment, is disastrous. The employee will feel underappreciated because the other team members will resent her small knowledge base and high inefficiencies. Clients who see this employee realize the lack of skill and confidence and wonder if everyone in the practice is like that. Team members and clients think this employee is of below-average intelligence, and the new employee starts to wonder if everyone's right. She feels stressed, depressed and realizes this horrible mistake of working at a veterinary hospital.

The result: Nearly 100 percent of the time, the new employee quits within the first two months.

The second method of training: A slightly more thought out, but still missing the mark approach. It started with a careful, time-consuming screening of applicants by myself. The newly hired employee often had experience in a related field, sometimes just a good personality and willingness to learn.

After hiring someone I thought was promising, the employee was attached to whichever exam room assistant was working that day. It was this exam room assistant's responsibility to instill the practice's raison d'être and all knowledge pertaining to being a stellar veterinary assistant.

This training process would last an average of two weeks, depending on how desperate I was for a position to be filled. The new employee would learn techniques on restraint, venipuncture, history taking and other necessary topics from various exam room assistants.

The reality: Often during this period the new employee is around clients. This method results in the employee feeling somewhat more valued than the previous method. This remedies stress, self-doubt and under-confidence to an extent. The client sees the new employee being trained by someone, which eases their concerns.

However, because the new employee isn't surgically attached to the trainer, the client will still have some alone time with a clearly inexperienced person who's tasked with their pet's well-being. Yikes.

The result: an employee with a somewhat haphazard knowledge of veterinary medicine. She has a 50 percent chance of staying with you, and will at best grow into an average employee. 

If you're following along at home, here's the score: 

I was losing. Badly. Here's why:

Problem No. 1: Hiring by myself. Several people should actively be involved in the hiring process. At my practice, this includes my human resources and finance manager and my pharmacy manager, who has a degree in psychology, which makes her invaluable on interviews. I realize most hospitals don't have a psychology major, so my advice would be to have any other managers sit in on interviews.

Problem No. 2: Having more than two to three people involved in the new employee training. Consistency is key to minimize the trainee's confusion on different methods and mind sets. Many roads lead to the same place, but learning all roads when you have little to no knowledge of where you are will seriously confuse you. 

Problem No. 3: Having multiple paths for veterinary assistants without a clear focus. I have five different positions for nonveterinarians:

1. kennel assistant

2. receptionist

3. veterinary assistant, support: tasked with performing diagnostics, ensuring all other members function efficiently, and general orchestration of the day

4. veterinary assistant, surgery/large animal: admits, preps, monitors and discharges surgeries and assists with all large animal farm calls 

5. exam room assistant: brings patients and owners from the lobby to exam room, collects signalment and history and restrains the patient for doctor. This team member has more client interaction than all other veterinary assistant positions.

With so many paths, I needed to make sure training was balanced and helped team members thrive along each career path.

It begins with a slow selection process involving one manager (me) and two of my employees, all with different backgrounds and viewpoints.

> After hiring the perfect employee, that employee will be trained by only two specific people for the first month. One particular support assistant, and one particular surgery/large animal assistant for four weeks. The trainee will learn many aspects of those two positions and how to handle most common procedures for those positions.

> Downtime will be managed by memorizing facts on heartworm and flea prevention, vaccine protocol and drug uses.

> Practice raison d'être will be explained by the practice manager.

After the initial month, the employee will then sit for about four receptionist shifts to learn the basics of checking clients in and out, as well as client interaction skills.

It's only after this five week period that I allow client interaction at the side of one particular senior exam room assistant. Because the assistant is familiar with so many aspects of the job description by this point, training in the exam room is minimized. Clients perceive a well-educated assistant who is familiar with all aspects of what the hospital offers.

The results: With training limited to three trainers, the trainee learns quickly and efficiently, reducing confusion and boosting the rate of learning. The trainee feels confident and intelligent, because the practice manager hand-selected the trainers and gave the trainee the necessary time and tools to succeed. The employees we've trained this way have shown significantly above average performance and an astonishing 0 percent turnover rate.

Cost: Sure, it's easily 15 times more expensive than method 1 and three times as costly as method 2. Is the cost worth it? Absolutely. Developing confident, knowledgeable team members who will stick with you for years is priceless. Not only does it reduce training costs in the long run, but your clients will feel confident in your team members' abilities and will respect your practice more. 

Alex Espinosa is the practice manager of Clarkesville Veterinary Hospital. 

Related Videos
© 2023 MJH Life Sciences

All rights reserved.