5 Essential Skills for Locum Relief Veterinary Professionals
Locum relief veterinarians are valuable assets to clinics who need a little extra support or want to make sure their patients have access to quality care while they are away from the clinic. Locum veterinary professionals need the same foundational skills as any other veterinarian; however, there are certain attributes and skills locum veterinarians should be particularly good at. A great veterinarian may not make a great locum veterinarian, so what exactly does it take to be successful? There are certainly more than these 5, but if you have a good handle on these, any clinic would be happy to have you pitching in to support their team…
The most important skill of them all is adaptability. Adaptability, by definition, means the quality of being able to adjust to new conditions. If there is a theme to life as a locum veterinarian it is just that, new conditions. As we all know, not every veterinary clinic or hospital is the same. Key differences include:
- The layout- This seems like a no-brainer, but how often have you become used to where everything is and how you move around a space? You will need to be able to adjust to different exam rooms, different storage locations, different kennels, different surgery suites, etc. The layout of a clinic controls the workflow from the entry of clients and patients to your exam in the exam room or treatment area, to the checkout and departure process. You must adapt to your surroundings.
- Protocols- Not every clinic uses the same protocols. There is a wide variety of anesthetic drug options. You need to be familiar with the most common because not every clinic will have the same drugs in stock. How are emergencies handled? How is inpatient care handled? How do they treat late appointments? What are the recommended vaccine protocols (i.e., is the Bordetella good for 6 months or 1 year)? Each clinic operates just a little bit differently, and there are basic (often unspoken) protocols each clinic operates by. You will have to adjust to each practice’s subtle nuances.
- Available equipment/medications- There are numerous types of x-ray machines, dental-specific x-ray, dental cleaning instruments, available surgical tools, ultrasound, therapeutic laser, rehabilitation equipment, fluid pumps, etc. Some clinics pride themselves on stocking and utilizing the latest in medical technology while others may be stuck a few decades behind. This is also true of available medications, antibiotics, vaccine types, etc. It takes work to remember, “Oh yeah, this clinic doesn’t have dental radiographs,” or, “Oh I can’t use that ear medication.” You wouldn’t want to recommend a product or service that practice is unable to provide.
- Personnel- Support staff has a huge impact on the workflow of a practice. Knowing if you have experienced, registered veterinary technicians versus the high school kid on summer break is important for proper adjustment to that given environment. Being able to adapt to clinics with more or fewer staff, staff with poor or high levels of experience, even other veterinarians who work there is essential. There are situations where you may have to carry the majority of the load and others where you feel like part of a well-oiled machine.
These are just the primary areas where adaptability is important. As you can see, your ability to adapt to change is key to your success in any practice as a locum veterinarian.
All failure is the failure to adapt; all success is successful adaptation ―Max McKeown
Personability & Communication
Every veterinary professional loves animals. It’s why you chose to spend most of the hours of your life doing this. However, each animal you see is attached to a human being (sad as that may be for some of you). Not only that, but you must work with other human beings in order to accomplish your goal with that furry friend. Having solid communication skills and being a team player is key to working with others.
Your team is going to change with each clinic you work in. As we know, people who often work together develop a particular bond and communication style. As a locum, you don’t have much time to develop a similar bond or figure out how various people communicate. It doesn’t take long from the initial, “Hello, how are you?” to then completely invading each other’s personal space while attempting to examine that flailing Yorkie. You must have a general sense of good communication and approachability. Quickly building rapport is essential to earning the trust of these people you don’t see very often. Try:
- Have a positive attitude- the veterinary clinic can be an emotionally challenging place, and approaching each situation with a positive attitude is always appreciated by those around you.
- Connect on a personal level- you already know you all love pets, so ask about their own pets at home, or a favorite breed, favorite animal, or even most difficult patient, and then provide a mildly embarrassing story of your own.
- Listen- listen to how the people around you talk, what they focus on in the conversation, what music they listen to. This allows you to better communicate on an individual level.
- Be open- openly communicate and openly discuss what you’re thinking. This gives those around you insight into who you are and helps them be a part of each process.
Veterinarians would accomplish far less without the help of their staff. If you can gain their support from the beginning, then your day will be infinitely easier.
The other people veterinarians interact with daily are the clients. Vets are used to adjusting their approach for various personality types. However, as a locum veterinarian, you are more likely to encounter clients who have worked with that one particular veterinarian for quite some time. It’s not uncommon to constantly hear, “Well Dr So and So always does this,” or, “Dr. So and So never did that before,” or the best, “I’m going to call Dr. So and So just to be sure.” Because yes, some clients have their veterinarian’s personal number on speed dial. The ability to clearly communicate with these clients and let them know, while you’re not Dr. So and So, you have their furry family member’s best interests in mind, are highly experienced, and are there to serve them is invaluable. You have to be personable enough to win them over, not by giving into their way of doing things, but by having them understand you’re ultimately here for them and their pet. In doing so, you ensure continued work from that practice.
Traveling to various clinics, working with different teams, adjusting schedules, and ensuring you have all the required documentation all take organization. We’ve all seen the stereotypical doctor’s desk strewn about with papers, lab work, and referral forms. For a locum veterinarian to be truly successful, that won’t work out so well. You will need to travel with your own documentation (license, controlled drug license, etc) and some of your own equipment; having it organized and ready to go is key. Every veterinarian should have their own stethoscope but other equipment you may want to have handy include:
- surgical instruments (just don’t forget to autoclave them when you arrive so they’re ready to go)
- dental tools or special drill bits (if dentistry is your thing)
- suture and bandage scissors (that are actually sharp)
- an indirect ophthalmoscope lens
- or anything else you just can’t live without when daily practicing medicine.
Additionally, you are ultimately working for yourself and running your own business. You need to keep track of time worked, contacts, pay schedules, tax forms, business expenses, etc. Staying organized keeps you on track and focused, allowing you to be more productive, and saving a lot of headaches come tax season. Steps to help keep you organized include:
- Finding a reliable accountant who understands the medical profession (many accountants are familiar with locum practitioners in the human field).
- Install your preferred business software (such as Quickbooks)
- Find a preferred organizational program such as ClickUp or Monday.com or smartsheet (or any other of the numerous task management programs),
Remember, you are taking over another veterinarian’s schedule and caseload. Most of the patients a veterinarian sees require follow-up care. Being organized and taking detailed notes makes it so much easier for the veterinarian you’re covering for. They can come back knowing what was diagnosed, what was discussed with the client, and what the next steps or plan may be moving forward. All of this takes organizational skills. You must do more work than if you were to follow up with the patient yourself requiring even better time management. Clinics are busy, and they can feel even busier when it’s not a practice you’re familiar with. Having the ability to manage that time wisely to provide proper notes but still get out on time is important for everyone.
If the name of the game is filling in for someone while they’re out, or filling some holes in a schedule, then you’re going to have to be flexible and reliable. You are being asked to take over another veterinarian’s job while they are away. If you show up late, call out at the last minute, or consistently turn down offers to come in, then why would they continue to offer? You need to be available and reliable to succeed. Sometimes this may mean picking up an undesirable shift around the holidays or helping a practice that is open later into the evenings. It’s important to build a good reputation with clinics in the area. If several clinics know you can be counted on to do a great job, then they are more inclined to mention you to others as well.
Not only must you be reliable in terms of your availability and punctuality, but you must also reliably deliver quality care. Consistency is key. Each time you come in working for a practice, think about what you would want from someone taking over your business or patients you have worked so hard to obtain. Then, reach a little further and think about what would make someone stand out in your mind as a trustworthy individual to leave your business with. If you can reliably deliver top-notch care for patients, a teamwork mentality, and organized notes and business relations then you can deliver true relief to veterinarians as they step away a bit. Knowing their business is in reliable hands is priceless and will guarantee you continued work.
Last, but perhaps most important, you must have confidence in your rock-solid foundational veterinary skills. Again, you will be working in different environments, with different people, and with different equipment/supplies at your disposal. This means you need to have a plethora of clinical knowledge in your head to properly care for each patient with the tools in your current environment. You need to feel confident in your abilities and show that confidence to the support staff and clients to properly gain their trust.
Many locum veterinarians find themselves filling in for solo doctor practices. That’s often because, in multi-doctor practices, the other doctors can pick up the extra load for a few days. When you’re on your own, there’s no one to bounce ideas off, no one to discuss cases with, it’s all on you. Hopefully, you have the help of some experienced technicians, but that is never a guarantee. There are always textbooks and internet resources (such as VIN), but again that takes time. Are you confident enough to take on the congestive heart failure chihuahua, the hit by car, the renal failure cat, the DKA etc? These situations may not be the most common, but you need to be confident and prepared to handle them on your own when they do arise. You need to have strong basic skills in:
- Surgery- neuters, spays (are you ready if you drop a pedicle?), enucleation.
- Internal medicine- insulin types, fluid rates, recommended diagnostic tests, etc.
- Critical care (at least to triage)- rescue drugs, CPR, shock therapy, thoraco- or abdomino- centesis, etc.
- Hematology and internal chemistry assessment
- Radiograph interpretation
Confidence in your skillset goes a long way to impress the staff and clients. Once the original veterinarian returns, they will inevitably receive a “performance review” of sorts from the staff. You want them to be able to say you dealt with this and that without a moment’s pause, and that even the most curmudgeonly clients appreciated your tact. You’ve become a veterinarian, you have the work ethic and the skill, just believing in it will take you that much further.
One more note about confidence in your medical skillset. If you find yourself working in a clinic that is not practicing standard quality of medicine, then do not be afraid to address this with the owner of that practice. If the owner is aware and happy with how things are, then don’t be afraid to walk away from future work at that clinic. The likelihood of declining work hurting your reputation is much lower than others finding out you work at a clinic with poor standards.
Becoming a locum veterinarian includes exciting new environments, working with different personalities, the potential to travel, and a greater potential to increase your skillset. It can certainly be a thrilling and fulfilling profession but admittedly isn’t for everyone. Change is difficult for most people, and locum veterinarians lead a life of constant change. Currently, the market is ripe for picking for those looking to become locum veterinarians. The key is making yourself desirable by showing adaptability, great interpersonal skills, organization, reliability, and confidence in your foundational skills as a veterinarian. If you focus on these 5 things, you’re sure to succeed.
- Shortages and Excesses – February 2021 https://todaysveterinarybusiness.com/shortages-and-excesses/ – As viewed on 9 November 2021
- Covid-19 pandemic magnifies workforce crisis in veterinary field– 20 June 2021 https://www.cnn.com/2021/06/20/us/vet-tech-shortage-burnout/index.html – As viewed on 9 November 2021
- Locum vets—the pros and cons – 19 April 2021 https://vetpracticemag.com.au/locum-vets-the-pros-and-cons/ – As viewed on 9 November 2021
- The Pros and Cons of Locuming – 6 January 2016 https://jobs.vettimes.co.uk/article/the-pros-and-cons-of-locuming/ – As viewed on 9 November 2021
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