I frequently visit classrooms to talk about careers in veterinary medicine. When I ask how many students desire to be future veterinarians, most of their hands wave high. When I ask how many of them have pets at home, almost every hand is raised. And when I ask them why they want to become a veterinarian, they uniformly exclaim, “Because we love animals.” That is the teachable moment.
The career of veterinary medicine attracts people who love animals. Of course, that should be a prerequisite to study. It would be a tragic career move for someone who greatly minded being regularly covered with fur, feathers, and feces. After some work days, I look as if I just taped an episode of Dirty Jobs. But there is certainly more to this career than just liking animals.
Admission to a college of veterinary medicine is highly competitive. There are less than 30 programs in all of the U.S. Those accepted to professional veterinary training are great students, who got excellent grades in undergraduate science and math courses, and are driven to succeed. Almost every veterinary student holds a bachelors or masters degree in some area of science prior to admission. Because receiving an acceptance letter to veterinary school is like finding the pot-of-gold at the end of the rainbow, most pre-vet students postpone families, turn down higher paying jobs, and accept huge educational debt just to pursue a life-long dream of earning a DVM (or VMD) degree.
Once one begins practicing veterinary medicine, however, there is an instant and sometimes rude awakening. At the other end of every leash is a human.
I think of myself and my fellow veterinarians as highly competitive science geeks who must work well with others. Some of the others have four legs and some of them have two legs. You have to love people as much as you love animals to be successful as a veterinarian.
There are four sets of skills one must have to successfully practice as a veterinarian. Excellent animal handling skills are important when dealing with ill, biting, snarling animals that don’t feel like having an X-ray taken today. Excellent technical skills are important for making accurate diagnoses, performing surgery, and safely prescribing medications. Excellent business management skills are important because veterinary practices are primarily small businesses that have expenses, employees, budgets, marketing, and other administrative duties to attend to or the doors of the practice will close. Excellent communication skills are equally important so the veterinarian can explain disease processes, give estimates for services, counsel grieving owners, and advise owners about a course of action that fits within the family budget. One must be proficient in all four sets of skills to make it as a veterinarian. You can’t just love animals and be a successful veterinarian.
This week my son had surgery. I think how different was his experience from what happens when I perform surgery on someone’s furry family member. He was sent to a specific facility chosen by my insurance company, not necessarily convenient for us. My son met some of the surgical facility staff, but never met the doctor who actually performed his surgery. I only spoke with the surgeon once when my son was in recovery. My questions were answered by a staff member, not the doctor. No one provided an estimate of the costs of the procedure; they just expected me to sign a form that I would pay should the insurance company refuse to pay. Would a pet owner accept this treatment from me? I doubt it.
Pet owners have expectations at the other end of the leash. They expect to have a personal relationship with the veterinarian caring for their pets. Pet owners expect the veterinarian to personally examine their pets, personally perform the necessary procedures, call them after procedures, be available to take their phone calls with concerns or questions, and to be friendly and compassionate at all times. Pet-owners also expect the veterinarian to run a business that provides quality care efficiently, conveniently, yet inexpensively. It is a tough audience.
When I live up to those expectations, I frequently hear comments such as, “I get more information from you than I do my own doctor.” When I don’t live up to those expectations, pet owners vote with their feet and transfer their records elsewhere for care. Veterinary medicine is a very client-centered profession. Those who want to enter the profession need to be aware of who holds the leash.
Dr. Spencer practices at Bayonet Point Animal Clinic in Port Richey