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How much should vets be paid?

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Pete the Vet vets

In a recent blog post, I discussed the general theme of veterinary remuneration. This week, I want to go into this in more detail. How much should vets be paid? How should a vet salary be calculated? And what can vets do to increase how much they are paid?

How much should vets be paid?

Veterinary salaries have been discussed in previous blog posts, and many vets will agree that veterinary employees should earn more than they currently do (despite being hard-working, high-achieving individuals who have invested many years in training, vets don’t rank highly in salary comparison surveys). That said, there is an element of vocational work about being a vet: it’s difficult to start talking about pounds and pennies when there is an animal in trouble in front of you. The animal always needs to come first, but the money stuff cannot be forgotten about.

There’s a strong argument that in order for a vocation to be continued into the long term, a vet needs to be paid enough so that they can live a reasonably balanced life, working fair hours and earning enough so that they can pay for the necessities of life plus a few luxuries. If vets are not paid enough to achieve these goals, they are more likely to burn out, to leave the profession, and their skills and vocation will be lost to the animals that need them.. 

At the same time, many pet owners complain that vets’ fees are too high. This is the conundrum: how to pay vets enough while keeping vets’ fees as reasonable as possible for the general public.

How should a vet salary be calculated?

The broad concept is that vets are a key part of the team in a veterinary business, and their salary has to reflect the profitability of that business. The more profit that’s generated by the business, the more is available to pay the vets. Often this is expressed as a percentage of the turnover of the vet clinic: veterinary remuneration tends to be somewhere between 17% and 28% of the turnover generated. This is the proportion of turnover that’s generally thought to be due to the vet’s labour, and it’s hard to argue against that. If you look at a pie chart that breaks down the various costs of running a vet clinic, vet salaries make up around a quarter of the total, with costs for nurses, reception/support staff, drugs, utilities, building maintenance amongst the other items.

It’s difficult and lazy for vets to argue that they should simply have a higher percentage of the total; it makes more sense to ask how else they can increase their remuneration.

What can vets do to increase how much they are paid?

I believe that vet salaries are too low for the talented, trained, skilled employees that make up the veterinary workforce. But rather than just complaining that vets are not paid enough, it’s more constructive to ask why this is the case, and what can be done about it. So what can be done? The simplest and worst suggestion would be to say “clients should pay higher fees”: in an era where many pet owners feel that vets already charge high rates, it’s neither realistic nor fair to suggest this as an option.

A more realistic approach is for veterinary businesses to work with vets to find ways of optimising the efficiency of veterinary working time. Ideas include:

  • Delegating as much as possible to non-vets. 

Vets need to remember that their time is valuable. Why do routine wound checks and suture removals when others can do this just as quickly and effectively? Why spend twenty minutes setting up an intravenous drip when this can be efficiently done by a vet nurse? Why clip dogs nails when others can do it equally well? Why spend fifteen minutes discussing a bill with a client when support staff can do this? What else can be delegated from vets’ duties?

I write this as a vet who often does the type of tasks listed above, and as well as that,  I empty bins, sweep floors and carry food out to clients’ cars. Obviously there is a place for vets to do all sorts of tasks that others can do. We are not some type of precious elite. The point is that if vets want to be paid more, vet clinics need to be organised systematically to ensure that as far as possible, vets spend their time carrying out work that only vets can do, and by its nature, this is likely to be higher value work.   

  • Delegating and automating marketing of routine products and procedures

I hear rumours of vets being pressured to ensure that they optimise the health of pets under their care by persuading pet owners to ensure that their pets are given top of the range parasite control, best-in-town dental care and super premium nutrition. While this may, indeed, have the serendipitous effect of boosting the practice income, and hence providing more finance for veterinary remuneration, is it cost-effective use of veterinary time? It would make more sense for veterinary business to use other contemporary tools - including practice management software, SMS texts, social media and emails - to market the various ways that a pet’s health and lifespan can be improved. Why not leave vets to be vets, and let the practice marketing team do the job of sales?

  • Working efficiently and effectively at veterinary tasks

At the risk of sounding like an old style tyrant practice manager, it’s too easy for vets to become inefficient under pressure. When you’re busy, it’s hard to find time to give an estimate for all animals that you hospitalise. When your time is scarce, it’s easy to rush when writing up work, forgetting to include chargeable items. What can be done about this? It’s partly a management issue: schedules and rotas need to ensure that vets remain sufficiently fresh and energised so that they can enjoy and excel at working to their full capacity. But it’s also a personal responsibility issue: most of us can try harder and do better if we really focus. 

  • Avoiding seeing animals that do not need to see the vet

There are some cases that I see as a vet that I really do not need to see. I am thinking about dogs that have vomited only once, and they remain bright and cheerful and normal in every other way. I am talking about dogs that are marginally lame after coming back from a walk. Or cats that have a minor ocular discharge for 24 hours, with no other signs. I believe that there is a place for more effective triage by veterinary support staff, with the underlying message that not every client who contacts the vet needs to have their pet seen by the vet. All too often, if a client phones their local vet clinic, the default response is “you’ll need to come and see the vet”. 

Indeed, some will say that to be absolutely safe, a clinical examination by a vet needs to be carried out in every case where an owner has even the slightest worry about their pet.  And some will say that for a veterinary business to be optimally productive, as many animals should be seen as possible. However, being practical, and taking the view of the beleaguered public who may believe that they spend too much on veterinary fees, it could be argued that if veterinary clinics improve their ability to carry out effective triage without involving vets directly, they will be able to offer a better value service overall. Yes, people will pay significant fees when they really need to see the vet. But if they don’t need to see the vet, they won’t be asked to do so. This would mean more efficient use of veterinary time, and in the long run, this means better value service for owners, as well as better remuneration for vets, with their professional skills being used in the optimal, most effective way. 

I know there are cases where a clinical examination is essential: the vomiting dog with a palpable foreign body, the dull cat with a blocked bladder - there is a long list. My point is simply that expert triage may have more of a role than we currently allow.

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