Pregnant Equine Vets! Where are the Locums?

How many times have you overheard a discussion between older vets who reminisce about the old days before all of the women in the profession made it hard to run a vet practice. They aren’t as strong as men, they don’t work as hard as men, and they get pregnant. The last reveals a deep understanding of mammalian theriogenology, but the first two are absurd. I have seen some very strong female vets alongside 98 pound weakling male vets,  and I also don’t believe there is a gender difference in work ethic. Although in our practice we knew that the likelihood of a pregnancy occurring in our all-female professional staff was very high, we were still caught unprepared when it actually happened. One of our clinics is a two doctor practice with a heavy focus on racehorses and breeding. Imagine my surprise when both of them separately told me, on the same day, that they were pregnant and expecting within the same week. Neither knew the other was pregnant. My feelings were mixed, to say the least. On one hand I was ecstatic about the news. How can you not be happy for someone about to start a family? Yet, at the same time, I wondered what we were going to do when they both left for maternity leave. One thing I should mention to fill out the story is that in Canada, maternity leave is for a full year. This certainly complicates things because of several factors that I didn’t really think about until the last few months. These issues are going to challenge all of us at some point in the future as equine practice managers.
Equine veterinarians are not disposable
It takes years to develop a clientele, or to even have a client accept a new vet in an equine group practice, while companion animal clients are generally more tolerant of locums and replacement vets.  There are some companion animal practices that are relationship based, but these are not as all-encompassing as those shared between equine vets and their clients. It is the rare equine practice where all of their clients are satisfied to share the vets or vice versa. There is a reason there are no equine locum vets; the clients don’t want them.
New vets are particular about where they work
We discussed this a little last week, but new grads today are not just accepting any old job. They want to work in a progressive practice with high-end diagnostic equipment, excellent quality of life, clean and safe working conditions, and mentorship. And oh yes, they do not want to work on racehorses. Our practice in question today is in a rural location with all of the above amenities, except that the replacement vet would be on call 24/7 for the next 6 months or more.  In addition, they would also have to work on standardbreds and racing quarter horses. Even if a young, enthusiastic vet wanted to tackle racehorses, the discerning race track clientele do not want to deal with newbies.
Female equine vets are going to keep getting pregnant
Obvious I know, but when greater than 85% of vet students are female, well you can figure out the rest. This issue is something we as a profession will have to deal with now.
What can the equine vet profession do?
The first thing we need to do about the situation is not blame young female veterinarians for the problem. The issue lies within the general model of client relationships in the equine veterinary profession, where one “rock star” vet is the go-to person for their clients, and rarely do vets within a group practice share a clientele. The problems develop when the vet is absent due to injury or pregnancy and business flees to the next great celebrity vet because there is no loyalty to the actual practice. This is also critical when a retiring vet tries to sell their practice and discovers that it is worthless, except for the equipment, since there is no guarantee that the clients will accept a new vet.
Going forward, our sector of the veterinary profession is going to have to let go of our egos and train our clients that they can accept different vets from within the practice. The message must be that every vet from the practice is excellent, and all patients are treated with attentive and skillful care regardless of the actual doctor who is visiting the farm. Clearly the onus is on the clinic to make this a reality and not just a byline.
A bigger challenge is to know what our true costs are so we can price accordingly. Should we all have a little padding in our profits to afford the extra vet who can fill in as needed? Some, but not many, single practitioners are fortunate to be amongst a collegial local group that respectfully help each other out and share on call. It is also more manageable in the USA when mat leave is a much shorter period of time. If one vet is off, the remaining vets in a practice can tough it out for 3 months or so. It is a huge problem, though, when you are in a rural area that is price sensitive and can only justify 2 vets based on the horse population, or in a group practice where the vets have a full caseload with no room to spare.
These are some of the new challenges facing our industry, beyond the economic downturn. Creative minds need to develop functional solutions. Successful practices of the future will have accepted this challenge now, and will have made the necessary adjustments to deal with the changing face of our industry.
Finally, you are probably wondering about the outcome of our double mat-leave situation. Today we are closing the practice…for good. We could not attract a suitable candidate that wanted to be on call 24/7 for the next 6 months while working on a mix of race and pleasure horses. I am sick about the exceptional staff that are losing their jobs, and I am so sorry to lose 2 wonderful and talented vets. We were able to find a place for one technician at another clinic and maybe the same opportunity will be there for the vets when they return. After all, we need to have some vets in reserve…..all of our other vets are female.
Welcome to equine vet medicine in the 21st century.
Have you found this to be an issue in your practice? Now is the time to share how you dealt with it so we all can be better prepared when it happens to us.
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