AAEP Wellness Coverage: Mentoring an Early-Career Equine Veterinarian

Two veterinarians sit by a grey horse. The older veterinarian is mentoring the new veterinarian.
New veterinarians should shadow experienced doctors on routine and emergency calls when they first join the practice. iStock

Dr. Cara Wright presented a thoughtful approach to mentoring new equine veterinarians in private practice settings at the 2022 AAEP Convention. She noted that new graduates can struggle with adjusting to a new environment, creating healthy relationships with staff, and practicing with diagnostic and treatment options that might be limited compared to experiences in veterinary school. Providing a structured mentorship program with realistic expectations is critical in achieving a good outcome, she said.

Challenges for New Veterinarians

The challenges that new graduates face are numerous. In fact, they exist for all veterinarians of any experience level when joining a new work environment, Dr. Wright stated. Learning new practice management software, developing rapport with team members, understanding different practice protocols for various tasks, working with more limited inventory or equipment resources, and meeting new clients are all understandably stressful for any doctor new to the team. For the new graduate, there are additional hurdles to navigate, she said. Notably, graduates need to learn leadership in new interpersonal roles with support staff, clients, and other veterinarians. In addition, efficiency in private practice workflow is much more important and expected than in a university setting, leaving a slower new graduate often feeling inadequate. 

Importance of Mentoring Early-Career Veterinarians

Adjusting to the ambiguity of “real life” veterinary practice can also be hard for those new to private practice, Dr. Wright continued. When a case cannot be definitively diagnosed, and treatment must be started for the most likely scenario, frustration and anxiety can result. Inability or unwillingness of clients to undertake the very best of available care can cause additional stress, she said, and the slow pace of examinations and decision-making can leave both clients and support staff dissatisfied. Adding to these issues is often a lack of communication and leadership experience, as well as a busy practice environment that might not have the capacity for mentoring. All these factors can result in an erosion of confidence and lack of progress in skills-building.

Strategies for Mentoring New Veterinarians

The solution to these difficulties lies with carefully planned strategies for mentorship, stated the speaker. New graduates should never be slotted into roles that technicians could perform. “Make sure the mentee is set up for success,” Dr. Wright emphasized. Assigning an experienced technician to a new veterinarian can be extraordinarily helpful, as they can provide guidance in practice procedures, setting up and operating equipment, and utilizing practice management software. They also serve as a familiar bridge to clients, and a calm presence during an unexpected clinical situation, she said. A senior doctor should review medical records and invoices to be sure they meet practice standards. They should also help teach the expectations, policies and procedures.

Working in Phases

Initially, the graduate should take on appointments for low-complexity issues, allowing for extra time, the speaker noted. These realistic time management expectations are necessary to allow a smooth transition to practice. At first, many new graduates ride with more experienced doctors for a period of time in a phased transition, Dr. Wright explained. In Phase 1, the new doctor shadows experienced doctors on both routine and emergency cases. When riding together, the new graduate writes the record and invoice. The senior DVM then modifies and critiques the writeup.

The duration of each phase will differ between practices and doctors, she said. In Phase II, routine calls for wellness or simple complaints begin. These should be low-stress appointments with “easy” clients, she stated. As skills increase, the new clinician can begin emergency duty with available backup. After about 6 months, Phase III may begin, with increased complexity of cases seen independently, but continued exposure to cases attended by a senior clinician. At these appointments, the newer doctor should be in charge as much as possible, with the senior doctor present for advice and support.

Using a Skills Matrix

Dr. Wright recommended using a Skills Matrix with a timeline for accountability. Clear metrics are important to ensure progress and allow adequate opportunities for proficiency. The Skills Matrix displays the competencies needed, along with the current and desired proficiency level, she explained. At a monthly check-in, both the mentee and the mentor rate each skill. They make action plans to ensure continual progress. At meetings or in any mentoring conversation, Dr. Wright recommended asking if the mentee is open to receiving feedback at that moment, reinforcing the positive, and providing suggestions for improvement, all while maintaining an attitude of curiosity rather than judgment. She said to ask, “What did you learn? What could you have done better?”

Preparing New Veterinarians for Success

In conclusion, the speaker encouraged practices to approach onboarding new graduates with patience, compassion, and a clear, well-planned program for success.

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