We all live in fear of the “Bad Review.” We don’t want to be accused of caring only about money, and we don’t want to be told we killed someone’s pet because we made a mistake. But the thing that hurts the most is to hear someone say we let them down because we just didn’t care enough.
There are vets who care more about money than others. There are vets who make worse mistakes than others, and vets who blame others for their mistakes. We aren’t immune to bad decisions, bad planning, bad management, or bad marketing. But the one thing I don’t believe you can say about us is that we don’t care enough. It’s a sad generalization. I’m speaking about vets here because that’s what I am and therefore what I know from personal experience. But this can be said about just about everyone in your average veterinary hospital. We are flawed, sometimes emotional, sometimes abrupt – but we care. And we do it deeply.
The reason 1 in 6 veterinarians will consider suicide during their career is not that they don’t care enough. It’s almost certainly in part because we care too much, and because some of us literally would rather die than see ourselves painted as heartless or to be shamed publicly for things we could not control, or for things we didn’t even do.
The reason Fear Free and low stress handling, better pain management, and areas like acupuncture and physical therapy are gaining popularity is that they not only increase patient and client satisfaction, they make us happier at work too. We don’t like torturing animals. We care too much to be able to do that and be truly happy.
We didn’t become lawyers or stock traders or engineers because we aren’t smart or ambitious enough. We had to be plenty smart and ambitious to get into vet school, never mind get out with a degree and survive the first terrifying years of practice. We chose this career because we couldn’t imagine doing something that didn’t involve caring for animals and nurturing their relationship with people. We could make more money doing something else, possibly with fewer hours and less stress and less debt. But most of us stick around – because we care. Our hearts are full of sweet gray muzzles and kitten fluff and our pants are covered with dog hair and smushed treats at the end of the day, and we can’t imagine it any other way.
But caring so strongly about anything comes with a price. For too long now, vets have been expected to sacrifice nearly all aspects of their personal lives for the sake of the job, and we have succumbed because we had limited options and the weight of previous generations’ martyrdom on our shoulders. We all go into vet med knowing a certain amount of unpredictability is part of the deal. We might have to cancel plans because of an end-of-shift emergency. We might have days where we are swamped with calls that can’t wait. And we have charts (so many charts) that have to get done before we forget what we saw and said, every single day. But here’s the thing: I believe the canceled plans, super late nights spent charting, and end-of-shift emergencies should be the exception, not the rule. I believe it’s OK for us to have goals outside of work that are just as important to us as being good vets. I believe it’s OK for us to have an identity that does not revolve only around whether we saw every possible patient or called every possible person back that day. And most of all, overwhelmingly, I believe this culture needs to start inside the hospital, with every member of the team.
Think about it: Those bad reviews where clients accuse us of being uncaring – the people who make a scene in the waiting room because they had to wait too long (what do they think we’re doing? We are seeing other pets! Because we care!). Those viral Facebook roasts – I mean posts – where someone blames their vet for a side effect, an “unnecessary” test or vaccine, an inability to see them at the last minute when emergency care was available elsewhere, or worst of all, a pet’s death, be it by perceived neglect or by mistake. We are walking in a social media minefield at all times. We are waiting to be the target. We can’t talk to every client about this directly, and we can’t change the minds of the angry mob once they’re shouting. But how can we expect clients to see things differently if our own team members judge us for wanting balance?
Patient care should not suffer just because a doctor wants to go home. But if there is an alternative – a drop-off appointment the next day, the ER that night, phone triage with a technician, a pain medication to send home before closing. It’s not unreasonable to expect that a client will accept one of these options and that most of the time, the doctor can go home to her family, her plans, or her microwave dinner and time on the couch with her dog. It doesn’t matter what the reason is. She’s allowed to go home without being painted by her team as indifferent. She probably poured her heart into every appointment she saw that day, every call she returned, every decision she made for her patients and her team, and she deserves to be done when she’s done.
The expression “you can’t pour from an empty cup,” is trite, but true. There are some rock star vets out there, I’m sure, who can work late every night, come in early every day, take late emergencies every Saturday, and make calls on their days off and still see every patient with a smile, treat all team members with respect, and practice excellent medicine. But for the mortals among us, we need time to recharge, get regular exercise, go grocery shopping, call our parents if we’re lucky enough to be able to, and set goals for ourselves that don’t involve work. Do team members really want to work with a burned out, grouchy, sleep-deprived doctor with a week of canceled plans behind her? Do they really think that what defines a good vet is how many patients or calls she can make in a day without turning into a jerk?
For me, being a good vet means being a happy person, because that allows me to sit right down on the floor and chat with a client until a timid dog climbs into my lap. It means I may be running late, but because I had a good day off the day before or am looking forward to a fun weekend ahead, I don’t let the stress of being late show during my appointments and clients leave smiling even if they had to wait. It means I am able to make good decisions for both my patients and our team. It means fiercely guarding what I love about my job, so I don’t let what I don’t love about it turn into all I can see.
We are all on the same team. Front office, tech staff, kennel assistants, managers, vets – we must be advocates for one another and for our profession. We need to present a unified front to our clients. If we want to see a future in veterinary medicine that involves less burnout and lower rates of depression and suicide, we must start in our own hospitals with our own culture. Support one another. Assume the best of one another. We all tell ourselves stories every day about the people we meet and the things they do and say. Tell yourself stories that paint other team members in a positive light. There is always a choice to be made; make the kind choice. Good patient care and work-life balance for vet teams are not mutually exclusive, but lip service does nothing to show this to clients. The energy you create by lifting each other up, the assumption of best intentions whenever and wherever you can, and the message that happier vet teams provide better care – those are what clients need to see. Those are what we will get us to a better future. Those are what will save us from the dark.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the DrAndyRoark.com editorial team.
Dr. Katie Berlin is a small animal general practitioner in Mechanicsburg, PA. She is also a reader, a rider, a runner, a lifter, a teacher, and an art lover. She graduated from Williams College in 2000 with a degree in Art History and worked in art museums before going back to school and earning her DVM from Cornell in 2009. She is an avid supporter of Fear Free practice and the battle against compassion fatigue in the veterinary profession.