Veterinary practice managers must juggle the difficult tasks of overseeing hectic medical environments while leading a diverse team of professionals. While there are some similarities to the field of human medicine, veterinary management is ultimately a beast of its own. It demands a particular skill set if it’s to be done successfully, and should not be rushed into.
Looking to lead your veterinary practice into a new and better era? Here’s everything you need to know about the basics of veterinary practice management as you dive into this exciting field.
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Veterinary vs. human medicine
Regardless of whether they practice human or veterinary medicine, medical professionals around the world are used to dealing with unruly patients, concerned family members, and frantic work environments where the price of failure can be death. This means that management must be calm, collected, and capable of smoothly running daily operations so that technicians and specialists can focus on patient care.
Like human medicine, veterinary practice management can’t be mastered overnight, though it can be perfected over time with dedication and ample preparation. The different business functions a practice manager is responsible for can be dizzying, which is why so many often rely on management software to keep pace with their responsibilities.
While there are overlapping areas between human and veterinary medicine, veterinary practice managers must understand that the skills and experience from one field only partially transfer to the other. The art of veterinary practice management must be studied independently from human medicine if sustainable success is to be achieved.
Optional veterinary practice management certificates
You can’t just stumble into a veterinary hospital and start calling the shots; you’ll first need education and some experience. Additionally, you may want to pursue a veterinary practice management certificate, though these aren’t required and are only possessed by a minority of the workforce.
These certificate programs usually feature either in-person or online learning — or perhaps a hybrid of both — that culminate with an exam. After passing the exam, a veterinary professional is awarded a management certificate from the Veterinary Hospital Managers Association (VHMA).
Certification is a voluntary process that’s usually undergone by veterinary professionals who want to bolster their industry reputation. It may also be worth pursuing if you’re a low-level veterinary manager interested in securing a position at a larger network that requires additional training before hiring. VHMA certificates are not permanent but require ongoing recertification over some time to ensure their recipients remain at the top of their field.
Such certification exposes up-and-coming veterinary leaders to the Emerging Leaders program and other initiatives hosted by the VHMA that can aid in professional development. Nevertheless, it’s not essential to success in the field of veterinary practice management; most veterinary managers aren’t VHMA certified.
Veterinary practice management: tips and advice
Achieving success as a veterinary practice manager requires attention to detail and flexibility. Veterinary hospital management can be far different from the management of a smaller practice, but some general principles can be applied across the entire industry. Begin by remembering the core functions of a veterinary practice manager:
- Overseeing of daily clinic operations
- Management of long-term finances
- Facilitation of team-wide communications
- Devising cost-saving measures and bolstering profits
While there are other responsibilities that will demand your attention, these four core functions will often consume most of your time and energy. Any one of them can be considered a full-time job, which is why veterinary practice management often requires helpful software in order to remain organized, on schedule, and under budget.
Prospective managers should brush up on how to identify the right management software for the practice. They should also remember that while technology is a useful tool, it can’t serve as a replacement for human expertise or accountability. Ultimately, the buck stops with the practice manager.
Putting people first
An excellent veterinary manager understands that people must always come first. The workforce can’t be sacrificed for the sake of efficiency and profits, for sustainable success is only achievable when every member of the team is valued and professionally nurtured over time.
Veterinary managers should take special care when attending to the emotional needs of their workforce; many veterinary professionals undergo traumatizing events when delivering patient care and might need some support from their peers. They should also remain vigilant for signs of burnout across the workforce, as the veterinary domain can’t afford to lose any more of its qualified professionals.
During the pandemic, many veterinary clinics and hospitals have witnessed entire workforces collapse due to unprecedented levels of stress. Ensuring that your technicians aren’t overscheduled is an essential part of the job. Take time to check in on each team member every week to ensure nobody is left behind during these trying times.
Focusing on finance
Managing the financial operations of the practice is a delicate task. You’ll need a stellar accounting system that records every transaction with the practice. You may need to draft an annual budget and will almost certainly oversee the acquisition of new talent and equipment. Thus, it’s only natural that a solid grasp of basic financial knowledge is often a prerequisite to becoming a veterinary practice manager.
In addition to routine monitoring of cash flow to ensure the practice is as profitable as possible, veterinary hospital management may require making difficult decisions about the workforce. While demand for veterinary services is skyrocketing, finding qualified workers is incredibly difficult. Managers must carefully decide who to hire, when to fire, and how relief practices will fit into their organization.
Other than finances, veterinary management jobs must also attend to ethical and legal concerns that naturally arise in the field of animal healthcare.
Maintaining organizational ethics
Veterinary professionals are entrusted with the health and wellbeing of beloved pets every day. That means veterinary managers must prioritize organizational ethics to ensure optimal patient outcomes. Those managers who sideline ethics and the law will soon find themselves grappling with costly lawsuits and the threat of legal sanctions to their practice.
Practice managers must conduct annual reviews to ensure local, state, and national laws pertaining to veterinary medicine are being followed. Careful attention should be paid to the pricing of veterinary medication, especially during periods of regulatory scrutiny. They should also cultivate positive ethics across the workforce and establish an inclusive workplace culture.
Ethics is one area of animal healthcare that can’t be automated. While veterinary practice management software can help you keep track of your finances or employee schedules, ethical and legal concerns require a human touch. Make sure all employees are regularly briefed about any privacy policies or patient confidentiality agreements that your practice adheres to.
Pushing for professional values is one of the most important parts of this job. Besides championing diversity and inclusion within the practice, strive to live by the principles of honesty, integrity, and compassion in your personal life. Veterinary practice managers who don’t practice what they preach will find it difficult to motivate a team of professionals to follow their advice.
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Who makes a great manager?
What kind of person excels at veterinary practice management? While there’s no one-size-fits-all solution for making managers, possessing certain traits or qualifications will prepare individuals for the burden of veterinary hospital management.
Begin by asking the following questions:
- Does this individual possess a veterinary practice management degree?
- Does this individual possess voluntary certifications from groups like the VHMA?
- What leadership experience do they possess, both in and out of the veterinary industry?
- Are we looking to promote an internal technician, or should we hire an outside manager?
- Can this individual lead the practice in the long run if current leadership retires?
While these are far from the only questions that should be addressed when assessing who makes a good veterinary manager, they’re certainly some of the most common and important. Practice owners should take particular care when answering the fourth and fifth questions, especially if they’re concerned about the long-term legacy of the practice they may soon be leaving to the care of others.
Extra attention should be paid to the cultivation of in-house talent. The veterinary industry is currently beset by a dire shortage of human capital, meaning few practices can afford to part ways with their talented employees. Failing to promote an in-house employee to a management position could generate some strife within the team. That being said, outside hires offer your practice the opportunity to grow the team while potentially swiping talent away from the competition.
Good managers are more than human calculators who can oversee daily operations and attend to financial spreadsheets. They’re “people persons” who can unite the veterinary team and ensure professionals across the entire organization can communicate effectively with one another. They possess valuable years of experience which helps avoid costly failures and can advise the practice owner when important decisions must be made regarding the future.
A professional with a veterinary practice management degree also understands the importance of developing an employee assistance program. By investing time and effort into their workforce, these stellar managers diminish expensive turnover and upskill the technicians they oversee. They can make use of veterinary practice management software, but they understand that machines can’t handle every aspect of running a hectic hospital. At the end of the day, the best managers enjoy the trust and respect of those with who they have authority.
Bob Bellamy interview
— How’s managing a veterinary practice different from other kinds of establishments?
Bob Bellamy: Veterinary medicine requires all of the same best practices of any complex business but has the extra burden of dealing with the stress emotional challenges associated with the fact we are making life and death decisions with members of people’s families. We are rightfully held to the same standards of human medicine but with the expectation that we should be providing that service for little or no money. The refrain of “You are only concerned about money” is a routine insult that is hard for dedicated and passionate team members to process when they literally work longer hours at significantly less pay than those in the human healthcare fields. Emotional stress is the greatest challenge to the industry and resources to deal with it are difficult to come by.
— What should practice managers prioritize in their work agendas?
Bob Bellamy: That’s simple. People. It is far too easy to let the data drive agendas because without that nothing else works. But the care of people, clients, and staff alike, is the greatest determining factor in affecting the data successfully. Invest in people. Not just money though that needs to be a major factor, but in the relationships that support each other.
— Is managing a single practice any different from leading a corporate veterinary practice?
Bob Bellamy: Scale. Human beings simply are not designed to have relationships with hundreds of other individuals. Once you get past 20-30 people it becomes nearly impossible to build trusting relationships and maintain them. Large organizations with hundreds or even thousands of employees tend to depend on rules and structure to maintain these relationships rather than building a culture based on nurturing individuals and core groups at a scale that can be scalable.
— Based on your experience, what are some of the biggest challenges a veterinary practice manager has to face on a daily basis?
Bob Bellamy: Again, it is people. We are our biggest asset and our biggest challenge. Maintaining a culture with a foundation of trust and support isn’t easy. It’s much easier to just tell people what to do and punish them when they fail. But that isn’t sustainable. There is a paradigm shift taking place moving towards making the workplace a fertile ground for finding purpose and satisfaction. The investment in time, money, and thinking outside the box is required for each practice manager and owner to evolve to a better and sustainable model.
— Maybe some advice for young and aspiring veterinary hospital managers?
Bob Bellamy: Practice and Service. Those are two concepts that we all think we know about but are usually the easiest to forget. We are in the service industry. That means we are here to serve. That almost always means listening more than speaking. Those who are drawn to this profession tend to be those that want to problem solve and tell others how to do things. And that is great. But real leaders need to grow and evolve into servants committed to inspiring those around them to be better than what we can hope for or imagine. That means some selflessness and a whole lot of listening. Also admitting when we don’t know or make mistakes. We need to be examples of what collaboration means and not simply tell everyone how to do things the way we would do them.
And as far as practice goes, we don’t say “practice medicine” for no reason. It is an art form no different than playing piano or performing in a play. The more you practice selflessly, the better you get and the more meaningful your contribution becomes.
Managers need to remember that we are practicing too. We are expected to have the answers so sometimes it is easy to forget that we are students just like everyone else. The best teachers are those who never stop learning and never believe that they already know everything.
This isn’t something we win. This is a lifestyle and an approach to life-based on serving animals, clients, and all those we have the pleasure to work with. We are all going to fail and make mistakes. How we learn from it and support those around us is what determines success for that day and doing it again tomorrow is what tells us if we are on the right path.
New veterinary practice managers may find that it takes some time to earn the respect of team members. If they’re not careful, they will also discover how quickly trust and respect can be lost if management ignores the needs of patients or professionals. Ultimately, veterinary practice management demands a passion for animal healthcare and a talent for leading people.
Those considering a veterinary practice management degree or certification should understand that the veterinary industry is undergoing tremendous growth right now. Demand for qualified professionals will continue to skyrocket, but these important roles can only be filled by dedicated individuals who can acclimate to busy work environments.
Do you have what it takes to become a veterinary practice manager? This important role requires a careful and skillful specialist with an eye for detail and a commitment to patient wellbeing.
We wish to express our gratitude to our dear friend, Bob Bellamy, for sharing his expert opinion and insights as an experienced veterinary practice manager.
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