It’s no news to anyone in the veterinary industry that locum cover has been harder and harder to come by in recent times. Prior to the COVID pandemic, many practice owners lamented the difficulties around finding experienced, reliable locum veterinarians who were able to hit the ground running and manage a busy caseload in a new environment. However, once the pandemic forced border closures, severely limiting even interstate travel and making the working holiday a distant pipe dream, veterinary practice owners began to look back fondly on those times when the main difficulties around finding casual relief lay in finding the ‘right fit’.
In this new world we find ourselves in, finding any cover at all to enable practice owners and permanently employed veterinarians to take time off has become a challenge. So, when a clinic does find a willing and available locum, how do they keep that professional coming back for more shifts? After all, having a small pool of locum vets to call on is every practice owner’s dream. All the better if these vets have worked at the clinic before and are familiar with the protocols, staff and clientele.
Many clinics are already offering flights and accommodation for longer stints to locums who are based interstate. But, is there more that can be done to help relief veterinarians feel comfortable and valued?
Here’s what experienced locums have to say about what draws them to a clinic:
- The pre-shift communication- Once the shift has been booked, get in touch with the locum to confirm hours, rates, type of shift (eg. Consulting only vs requirements to perform surgery), billing protocol, professional indemnity insurance, names of support staff and anything else they may need to know for their shifts. At the same time, ask the locum what their comfort levels are with regards to handling particular types of animals, and for surgical or other complex procedures, if they are likely to have these booked in during their shifts.
- Protocols- Construct a standard document containing the following protocols which is readily available to the locum, either via email or kept in the consult room. If the document is left in the clinic, inform them ahead of time where they can find it. You should include at least the following protocols and policies:
- Vaccination protocols for all species treated by the clinic.
- Billing procedure and examples. This should include any additional charges for weekends or after-hours.
- Basic instructions on how to use the computer record system and login details.
- Expectations on whether the vet should bring their own stethoscope or can use the ones provided by the clinic.
- Details around access to S8 drugs.
- Referral policies and preferences.
- Policies or preferences around pathology, for example, preference for in-house versus external lab blood tests. Location of pathology sample tubes and request forms, as well as details of sample pick-up arrangements.
- Policies round booking in of complex procedures, particularly surgical procedures. For example, are there vets who excel at orthopaedic surgery and are happy to have these procedures booked in for them? Does the clinic prefer to only do dentals on Tuesdays and Thursdays?
- Any instructions around allowing client accounts, for example arrangements to pay in instalments. If there are exceptions to this policy for certain clients, this should be noted on the client file so that the locum is not left in the uncomfortable position of enforcing a policy that does not apply to that particular client.
- List of equipment available for use.
- Label cupboards and draws with types of equipment they contain, particularly in the consultation room. Having to fumble through drawers for a syringe or cotton ball won’t help build a new vet’s confidence when they are trying to impress your clients.
- Communicate in a timely manner with your permanent staff. Ensure they are aware there will be a locum vet on a particular day and the name of the veterinarian. Show the support staff where protocol documents are kept. Instruct them to provide a tour of the clinic on arrival and guidance to the locum vet on use of the computer system. Request that they avoid over-booking the schedule.
A Supportive Work Environment
- Book a reasonable and manageable schedule- Imagine walking into a new workplace on a busy day. You don’t know where anything is, you haven’t used any of the equipment before (X-ray machine, drip pumps, etc.), you have brand new colleagues and you are trying to build the clients’ trust. On top of all these stressors, you are booked back to back with consultations, some slots are double-booked and the nurses have been instructed to accept all walk-in clients as well. The result is that the very clients you are trying to impress are already disgruntled when they walk into the consult room due to the long wait times. Do not do this to your locums! Try to fight the temptation to force your locum to ‘earn their keep’. Yes, hourly locum rates are higher than those you pay your permanent vets, but the rates are a function of the nature of the job, which brings with it instability, poor job continuity and the challenges of adapting quickly to new situations. Over-booking an already stressed out professional is a great way to ensure they think twice about coming back for more shifts.
- Support staff- Try to schedule experienced, senior nurses to work with locum vets wherever possible. Having to work with junior or inexperienced support staff can add to stress levels of the locum vets as well as that of the support staff.
- Professional indemnity insurance- Consider opting for an insurance policy that covers contractors, or locums. Many full-time locums do have their own cover, but some vets that take the occasional locum shift may not. If your policy does not provide this cover, make this clear before the shift is booked so that potential locums can make an informed decision.
- Case handover- Leave instructions for handover of tricky or critical cases, whether it’s to just leave detailed notes or to call the vet who will be on duty next before the end of the shift.
- Case follow-up- Consider providing a follow up on more serious cases that your locum has been heavily involved in the care or work-up of. This should help them feel valued by the clinic and provide some of the continuity that is normally lacking in locum work.
A few more little things
- Offer competitive rates- Remember, securing a locum may be the difference between having to close the clinic or an entire vet’s schedule for the day, and generating a reasonable day’s income. In Australia, locum vet hourly rates start at around $50 but experienced locums tend to charge upwards of $65/hour.
- It’s all in the packaging- Train your permanent staff to refer to the locum vet when talking to clients as the doctor or vet who is covering for whichever vet is away. Many clients don’t understand what a locum is and may not realise that ‘the locum’ is actually a qualified and often experienced veterinarian.
- Dress-code- If there is a particular uniform or scrub-top that you would like the consulting locum vet to wear, inform them of this before the shift and provide a clean, ironed uniform or scrub-top for them to wear during the shift.
- Be kind- Resist the temptation to book difficult clients or complex cases that you or the permanent veterinarians try to avoid for the locum. If this must be done, take the time to call the locum prior to the shift and prepare them for the challenge.
- Payment- Pay the locum in a timely manner.
- One big family- If you have a long-term or regular locum, consider inviting them to the clinic end-of-year celebration. Not being part of a ‘work family’ can be the downside of long term locum work and including the locum this way can go a long way to helping them feel valued.
With some preparation and care, these are ways to not only retain good locum vets, but also to attract new locums. After all, the veterinary profession is a close-knit one and word gets around. While some vets may find a list of instructions to be too didactic, most will likely appreciate the guidance and care taken by their new employers. The guidance may also be useful for induction of new permanent staff.
Deepa Gopinath is a small animal veterinarian working in the pharmaceutical industry, as well as a freelance writer and social media content creator. In addition to her veterinary degree, she has completed her membership qualification in small animal surgery and and MBA through MGSM, Sydney.