What can vet chains struggling to recruit learn from StreetVet?

The past few years have seemed like a golden age for the veterinary sector with chains of clinics and hospitals multiplying fast and across borders. Investor enthusiasm to take advantage of the love pet owners have for their beloved animals has been rapacious.

Unfortunately, as companies like veterinary service provider CVS have found out, it’s not much use owning a large chain of clinics if you haven’t got anyone to staff them. “…the group remains heavily reliant on locum cover given the continuing industry-wide shortage of vets…” read CVS’ latest trading update, admitting that EBITDA looks to remain flat as a result.

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Smaller businesses are suffering from the shortage too, and the situation looks set to get worse. A survey by the British Veterinary Association found that 37% of respondents are actively thinking of leaving the profession.  

While many veterinary businesses are struggling to recruit, one charity that asks vets to give up precious spare time to do more work for free has somehow boomed in size. Set up in 2016, StreetVet, which provides veterinary care to the pets of the homeless has had its own golden age. In the space of three or so years, what started as two vets doing their best to help the homeless in London has now transformed into a 400-strong army of vets helping out the homeless and their pets across eight UK locations: Birmingham, Brighton, Bristol, Cambridge, Cheltenham, Cornwall, Plymouth and Southampton.

Co-founder Jade Statt with TV presenter Paul O’Grady

Co-founder Jade Statt and colleague Gabriel Galea have several theories as to what is causing vets to quit. “Vets graduating nowadays feel there is a lack of role models for them,” says Statt. “When I graduated my first employer owned his own practice, had many years of experience under his belt and it was in his best interest to help me be the best vet I can be.” Now, the structure of bigger chains means that senior vets may not feel invested enough to help guide new graduates who have joined.

She also worries that many new graduates are deskilling quickly and thus becoming bored. “The public are becoming more aware of the specialisms out there, thanks in part to programmes like Supervet, and because their expectations are so high, and there’s a perception that it’s a litigious world out there, graduates believe they should refer a lot of cases on.”

Further to this, Galea believes there is an inherent conflict between the desire of vets to do the best thing for an animal and the financial considerations of running a practice. Fear of a practice going bankrupt and being unable to help local animals “constantly opens vets up to emotional blackmail” that means they end up “working ludicrously hard for a salary that doesn’t match our skills,” laments Galea. Plus, the ongoing conflict between what treatments an animal needs and what the owner can afford puts vets in a difficult position that becomes “particularly demoralising” when they are then reprimanded by a non-veterinary manager for not bringing in more fees.

Streetvet, however, “let’s vets be vets” she adds. “The management team worry about the finances of each treatment, while we simply worry about keeping pets happy and healthy”. Statt concurs that the “overwhelming feedback… is that volunteering with us reminds them why they became a vet or veterinary nurse in the first place”. In other words, caring about the animals. Additionally, “when you’ve got a group of people all willing to give up their free time to give back there is a great vibe, that maybe people don’t feel in their work life”.

There are some clear takeaways here for veterinary chains.

One is that lines of communication within a business and each person’s role need to be carefully thought out. Vets who are allowed to get on with the business of caring for the nation’s pets without feeling harassed by a finance team that ignores their clinical expertise and relationship with clients, are more likely to stick around in their jobs. “Ensuring that all communications about performance and targets are led by suitably trained vets would change conversations that would otherwise feel like an admonition into a learning experience,” advises Galea.

In fact, all forms of internal corporate communications, whether that’s a whole company update on a chain’s financial progress, or announcement of new protocols or services need to be carefully managed, mindful of the different audiences within a business.

Introducing a mentor scheme within a business would also be a good way to help retain recent veterinary graduates. Having support during what is a very daunting time, will help recent graduates develop their skills, and become more confident vets, less likely to quit the profession.  

In a similar vein, veterinary chains should consider making out-of-hour shifts compulsory for a manageable period for new graduates. “It completely changes your way of working and will give them a boost of confidence in their skills,” says Statt. Out-of-hours work that forces vets to think on their feet, will help stop new veterinary graduates referring on cases and deskilling.

Furthermore, veterinary chains need to make a clear effort to communicate that they have such measures in place in their recruitment campaigns, and work hard to engage with potential employees.

We’ve had several years of fierce investment into the bricks-and-mortar of veterinary businesses. Now the management teams and their backers need to start investing more into their employees.

Ploy Radford is a freelance journalist and a consultant at PLMR, which provides media relations, corporate communications and public affairs services to a number of sectors, including animal health. She can be contacted on 0203 4630 813 or ploy.radford@plmr.co.uk

This feature was first published in the May 2019 issue of Pet Gazette

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