One of the aspects of equine practice that is most stressful for equine associates is emergency work. It isn’t the actual cases; it is the extra time at night and on weekends where they are unable to rest or pursue activities outside of work. Those activities might include spending time with family or friends, riding their horses, hiking with their dogs, or any other number of enjoyable things. Many young veterinarians find they feel anxious while on call, even when they don’t get called out to attend an emergency.
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As the profession has shifted to females being the majority, many have children at home for whom they have primary responsibility. Those that have infants often are already sleep deprived and exhausted by their obligations outside of work. Elementary school age children often need help with their homework or have after-school activities like gymnastics, ballet, soccer, or Little League that require transportation and parental attention. As kids get older, having their parents present for family dinner, conversation and attention becomes even more critical for their successful development, according to some studies.
A 2015 survey published in EquiManagement revealed that although practitioners acknowledge that emergency coverage is a necessary and often rewarding part of practice, it adds a significant amount of stress to the already busy lives of equine doctors.
One of the questions posed by the survey was: “How do you feel about emergency duty?” 30% of respondents found that emergency work seriously and frequently disrupted their scheduled work, and 32% reported feeling stressed and unhappy due to emergency work.
Emergency duty is the most stressful and negative part of equine practice, according to 26%. The negative effects of emergency work are so marked that 12% would be willing to pay somebody else to do their emergency shifts. 4% responded “I hate it so much! It is ruining my life!” However, 20% would like to do more emergency work if they were paid more to do it, and 9% would like to do emergency work exclusively.
Ways to reduce the negativity surrounding emergency work include paying 100% of any emergency fee collected, reducing the number of night and weekend emergency shifts required of each doctor by joining an emergency service cooperative, and having a designated daytime emergency doctor each weekday to reduce interruptions to the others’ scheduled workdays.
Other ways could be reducing the hours that emergency service is offered by requiring clients to access care at a referral hospital or university after 9 p.m., declining to provide emergency service to non-clients, and giving a compensatory day off in the week following each weekend on call. Requiring clients to haul in to a clinic or hospital to receive care could also improve the experience for veterinarians, as they could have a temperature-controlled, well-lit space with all their equipment close at hand.
As the profession struggles to attract and retain equine veterinarians, attention to improving emergency duty is critical. While the profession is unlikely to ever have the companion animal model of emergency clinics that take over at 5 p.m., there are certainly ways to lighten the burden. Emergency work can be very fulfilling to doctors when they can save lives and gain the loyalty and gratitude of horse owners, but only when it does not drain them of energy and passion for the profession.
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