Technicians, Take Action!

Originally Published: Exceptional Veterinary Team, October 31, 2011

One of the most common pitfalls for good technicians on their way to greatness is waiting to be told what steps to take. Want to boost your team to the next level? Use what you know to be proactive.

I’ll never forget a case from a few years ago: a client burst through the front door, carrying his dog in his arms, his shirt covered in blood. The dog had been hit by a car about 15 minutes earlier and was well on his way into shock. I called for catheters, fluid bags, pain medicines, and diagnostics, and the technicians on my team scrambled to every order. Thankfully, they had seen plenty of blood before. They worked hard and moved fast. When I said jump, they did it. In the end, the patient received very good care.

At the end of that long day, I kicked back with a fellow doctor who’d been in the clinic and witnessed the whole thing. I asked him how he thought my team and I had performed. (I have to confess, I asked because I thought for sure I’d get a high-five. I thought we’d done great. I was also going through a phase where, if I had a beer in my hand, I had an uncontrollable desire to high-five people). Alas, there would be no celebrating. My friend gently pointed out that although my team and I had worked well together, we could have done a lot better… and gone a lot faster. In fact, he said, “you guys might have a leadership problem.”

From Good to Exceptional
I was floored. A leadership problem?! I thought we were rock stars. I tried to look unaffected, but probably failed. “What makes you say that?” I asked. He said, “Your techs knew what to do. Why did they wait for you to tell them?”

I thought long and hard about what had happened and what he said. The next day, I gathered my technicians for a conversation. These technicians (like many I have worked with since) were bright, hard working, and excellent communicators. They had all of the tools to be game-changers for critical and routine cases alike. In many ways, they were ideal teammates. But the other doctor was right. We weren’t working together as well as we could.

I asked the group: “How do you think that hit-by-car emergency went?” We discussed all the things that we did well. They admired my composure under pressure. I applauded their medical knowledge, tireless energy, and compassion. Then we talked about what we could have done better. Were our emergency training sessions comparable to the real thing? Did they need me to list the equipment that was required, or could they have gathered it without my instruction? Did I ever make them feel like my input was needed before they should take action? Together, we stood on the edge of exceptional teamwork, but we weren’t quite there.

Frankly, we’d fallen into a rhythm that wasn’t the most productive. These technicians had the knowledge and experience to understand what was happening and to recognize what our immediate goals were. They didn’t need to wait for me to tell them that I’d need catheters, fluids, ECG leads, blood pressure cuffs, etc. They knew what was required, and I knew they knew. Their belief that they had to wait for me, and my reinforcement of this belief, were holding us back. I apologized for my role in developing those habits. I knew what these techs were capable of, and I’d let them fall into a routine of supporting me as no more than well-educated gophers.

To go from a good team to an exceptional team, we needed to function as partners. While I was the leader of the team, everyone had the opportunity to demonstrate leadership within his or her role.

The Value of Independence
The ability to work independently and to anticipate what steps are required to provide optimal care brings not only critical value in emergency situations, but an enormous benefit every day. By the time I approach a patient in a wellness visit, the technicians who have mastered this skill are well ahead of me in our protocols. They have the necessary vaccines out and ready to go. If they are unsure about certain vaccines, then they still have everything together, so they can move quickly once we have conferred and reached a decision. Blood is drawn for heartworm tests, and fecal cups are filled and labeled. If a patient is to be hospitalized, the truly exceptional technicians have started filling out the treatment order sheets, and they have gathered the clippers, tape, catheters, and whatever else we may need to start ongoing care.

I once discussed this issue with a technician who questioned my logic. It didn’t take long to gather up whatever we needed, she argued, and she could never be 100% certain of what I’d need or want her to do. First, I asked whether there was anything wrong with grabbing supplies we might not ultimately use. (We decided there was not). Then I asked how much time she thought it would save us if she had everything together and ready to go for our first appointment. I also asked how many cases she thought we saw in a month. We did some quick math and multiplied a minute or two per appointment by roughly 250 appointments per month. The value of working proactively quickly added up.

Outstanding Teams
Again and again I see hard-working technicians with the hunger to gain a stronger medical education. That work ethic and desire are both important. But it’s the ability to combine them and to take the lead on the technical side of the medical process that makes technicians and assistants truly stand out. Want to be a stellar technician or an irreplaceable veterinary assistant? Whether you have 10 days or 10 years of experience, try taking a step forward with proactive leadership. Anticipate what your patient will require and do your best to have it ready to go. As you gain knowledge and practice, your ability to anticipate will grow—as will your value to your team, your practice, and your patient.