With fewer new graduates choosing a career in equine medicine (less than 2% for the last decade) and significant numbers of equine veterinarians leaving for other sectors or retiring each year, many practices are struggling to fill openings for associates. Finding our way forward as an industry will require many things, and a family-friendly culture is paramount. Together, we can build a better, more satisfying life for equine practitioners.
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A recent study indicated that equine veterinarians leave equine practice primarily due to the lifestyle and the number of work hours required, emergency on-call duty, and mental health and stress. Innovative thinking is necessary to relieve these negative factors. Embracing necessary change will require flexibility and the willingness to try things that might be outside of one’s comfort zone.
When young women attend college followed by veterinary school in the usual sequence, they graduate with their DVM/VMD at the age of 28. If they want to have children, biological imperatives imply that starting a family will be most successful if undertaken within the next several years after graduation. Unfortunately, this biological clock timing coincides with the important first years of a new graduate’s career. (Within human medicine, a geriatric pregnancy is one that occurs anytime a woman is over the age of 35.)
Owners of equine practices often must augment a new hires’ salaries with profit dollars until they grow their gross revenue production sufficiently to support their compensation. If a new hire fails to build a client base quickly enough, profitability of the practice suffers. When women have the tension of building a successful client base while needing to take time for childbearing, their stress increases quickly. Finding ways to navigate these conflicting areas successfully are needed in equine practice.
Practicing equine medicine while pregnant can be dangerous, and women might wish to avoid some of their usual duties. Disability of pregnancy and delivery must be treated like any other disability, and when uncomplicated, lasts 6-8 weeks. Some women desire to take additional maternity leave or prefer to return to work on a reduced schedule initially. All of these factors can create short-term challenges at a practice. But good communication, flexibility and genuine caring can increase loyalty and job satisfaction. Thinking these issues through and having a collaborative plan in place in advance for maternity leaves is smart business. The alternative might mean losing talented associates permanently.
Veterinarians with young families generally cannot work long hours each day, 6-7 days per week, as has traditionally been the norm in equine practice. Having a “hard stop” to the day is often necessary to allow children to be picked up at daycare or from after school activities. Household necessities such as grocery shopping and doctors’ appointments must be attended to. Many women veterinarians are married to spouses who are employed full time and are not available for these responsibilities. Many of these young families do not have relatives living nearby to provide help for these needs.
Practices that offer shortened workdays and work weeks will attract and retain associates more successfully. Moving to a four-day work week with shared emergency duty is a first step in creating a family-friendly culture. Scheduling no routine appointments to begin past 3 or 4 p.m. can help provide the time that current associates need.
In order to cover the needs of the practice, more veterinarians might be needed, efficiencies improved or other steps taken. Having the practice leaders model the way is important in building real change in the practice culture.
Showing support for associates’ needs can help keep them in the equine profession. Humans are hard-wired to “belong.” When veterinarians’ personal needs conflict with belonging to the traditional equine veterinary culture, they suffer. Culture change is imperative. The time is now.
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