Feb 28, 2017 by Edward L. Blach, DVM, MS, MBA
Repeatedly in talking with veterinarians across the country, the issue of out-of-hours or emergency coverage has a big impact on veterinary practices of all kinds. A common phrase is 'it's almost impossible to recruit new doctors to our practice if they know they have to work weekends or nights.' They don't want to work anything but a traditional workday schedule.
In metro areas, many practices have solved this by aggregating efforts to build and staff emergency clinics to take this load off of their individual practices. Others have simply made the decision to shut off their phones at 5 pm on weekdays with a recommendation to clients via message that 'if you have an emergency, go to an emergency clinic'. This decision might make the workload more manageable for our teams, but it can create a significant issue for our clients.
Equine and mixed species clinics are feeling the pressures currently, because they haven't developed the emergency clinic concept to the same level as their companion animal colleagues. It's more difficult to do so in more rural (or less urban) areas, where most equine practices reside.
How do practices deal with this issue?
Some practices recruit specifically for the out of hours time slots. They seek veterinarians who want to work those hours due to family structure or needs, academic specialty, or lifestyle. Some fill one veterinarian slot with two veterinarians who work one-half of a schedule, such as one week on, one week off. In some cases, it's easier to find someone to work specifically at night, not days, instead of expecting them to work both. This type of scheduling is very common in businesses that operate 24 hours per day. Somehow in our history, veterinary practices came to expect that you work both shifts, not one or the other.
Other possible solutions could include off-loading some of this workload to services such as Ask.Vet. (Full transparency: The author is a co-founder and shareholder.) Ask.Vet provides support to veterinary practices in the form of text-based access to a veterinarian within minutes to ask simple questions. Ask.Vet provides the veterinarians, so your staff is relieved of the bulk of these contacts. They don't diagnose, prognose, treat, or prescribe. Instead, they listen, educate, answer questions, and help guide the animal owner to the appropriate care. If a practice subscribes to the Ask.Vet service, they have a proprietary 'key word' that their clients would text to 67076. The Ask.Vet key word is 'vet'. If your practice was called Smith Veterinary Hospital, then perhaps your key word would be 'smith'. Then, the Ask.Vet veterinarian will manage this client in the manner that your practice wants them managed. If you want them referred back to your practice, that is where clients are referred. If you want them referred elsewhere, the service will do as you request. 70% of client conversations end with a recommendation to go to their veterinarian, but in most cases, it is not urgent, so clients are grateful for not having to spend money going to an Emergency Clinic unnecessarily. Instead, they can schedule an appointment with their veterinarian for the next day. This service also helps take the load of general questions that arise during busy daytime hours off of your doctors. It allows your doctors to be with patients and yet satisfies your clients' need to talk with a veterinarian.
In summary, 24/7 services are difficult to staff. The profession needs to look at satisfying the needs of staffing in different and creative ways. Use scheduling innovation and technology to offload some of this service burden while still satisfying clients.