The Veterinary Corner series, brought to you by Merck Animal Health, features insights from leading veterinarians on some of the most pressing health issues affecting horses today.
By Cara Wright, DVM, MS, IVCA, Merck Animal Health
Everywhere you look these days, there’s talk about the shortage of veterinarians for both small and large animals. Perhaps you’ve even heard your own veterinarian talk about having trouble hiring someone or worrying about selling their practice when they retire because not enough graduates are choosing equine medicine—only about 5% of veterinary school graduates enter equine practice, according to a study from the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP). In addition to lower numbers of equine veterinarians, several factors are adding to burnout that causes professionals to leave the industry, such as on-call demands and salaries that are only slowly catching up to small animal medicine.
The industry is stepping up to support equine veterinarians.
- The Merck Animal Health Veterinary Wellbeing Study III, which Merck Animal Health administers as part of its unconditional commitment to those who care for horses, identified three concrete steps veterinarians can take to reduce their own burnout: establish a healthy balance of work and personal life, establish a healthy mechanism of stress relief, and hire a financial planner.
- MentorVet is an evidence-based mentorship program for early-career veterinarians, and Merck Animal Health is a founding sponsor.
- Decade One, which is supported by the American Association of Equine Practitioners and Merck Animal Health, focuses on business education and small group peer support.
But without support from clients and horse owners, some veterinarians—especially early career veterinarians, will struggle. So, what can you do to support equine veterinarians so they can keep supporting horses? The following tips will help get you “favorite client” status, plus help your veterinarian thrive on a day-to-day basis.
Respect the business
- Pay your bills promptly. The costs to run a veterinary practice are high. Did you know that every medication your veterinarian carries is already paid for by the time it gets to your horse? Delayed payment affects the practice’s cash flow, which can affect the ability to pay employees, upgrade equipment and attend important continuing education meetings.
- Appreciate the logistics required to schedule clients throughout the practice radius, and respect the appointment options presented to you. Your veterinarian can be much more efficient and see more patients in a day if appointments are scheduled based on geography.
- Offer to trailer in. This enables your veterinarian to care for more horses in a day, as well as makes it easier to work your horse in if an emergency call affects the schedule.
- Support and encourage veterinarians who are new to the profession. According to the AAEP, nearly 50% of their membership leaves the profession after five years. Be patient with new veterinarians, keeping in mind that every veterinarian was new once. Enabling these doctors to learn and thrive is vital to the professional’s survival.
- Welcome practitioners who may be filling in while your veterinarian is on vacation or attending a continuing education meeting, both of which are integral for longevity in the profession. Your veterinarian trusts them to take care of you and your horse, so please give them a chance.
- Trust your veterinarian’s recommendations. Vets stay up to date on trends in medicine and diseases through special programs such as the Merck Animal Health Equine Respiratory Biosurveillance Program, which studies the prevalence and epidemiology of relevant viral and bacterial respiratory pathogens. Google can be helpful with generalized information, but your veterinarian is well-versed in the most current treatments and your horse’s specific needs and situation.
- Value and respect the clinic staff. Veterinarians cannot do their jobs without their staff. One of the most effective ways for veterinarians to increase efficiency in daily practice is allowing technicians to handle some cases. For example, technicians are licensed and qualified to pull blood, change bandages, take radiographs and administer certain medications. Support the technicians sent to your farm for cases that don’t require a doctor’s immediate attention.
- Have your horses clean and ready when the vet arrives. Time waiting for you to catch horses from the pasture is time your veterinarian could be using to see patients. Most veterinarians will strive to be timely for your scheduled appointment and will call if they are delayed by an emergency, so aim to return the favor.
- Consider time and format. Every veterinarian has a preference for emails versus phone calls versus texting. Regardless, be considerate of business hours, and respect that there may be a delay in response to non-urgent questions.
- Use the emergency line for emergencies. If you aren’t sure whether your horse is experiencing an emergency, absolutely call the veterinarian. Answering questions and learning about a potential case early on helps your veterinarian create better outcomes for your horse. And a conversation helps avoid an unwarranted emergency call if your veterinarian determines your horse’s situation can be handled later in the day or the next morning.
- Be forthcoming about second opinions. Veterinarians’ feelings won’t be hurt if you’re up front about wanting or already seeking more information. Your veterinarian can help you find the best resource for follow-up and next steps. Also, if your veterinarian recommends referral, strongly consider that option. Veterinarians know their limits and want their patients to be served by specialists when the need arises.
- Track your horse’s annual care and prescriptions. Your vet will always have this information available, but keeping track of your own paperwork and prescription refills will save their office staff time and the headache of last-minute urgent orders. Treat Coggins and health certificate requests the same way; the further in advance your veterinarian knows you need these, the better (and less expensive!) it is for everyone involved.
Be prepared for an emergency
- Learn how to take a basic temperature and heart rate. Create a first aid kit and know basic wound care steps. Call your vet before giving any medication that you have on hand (ex. Banamine), and do not put anything in a horse’s eye without discussing with your veterinarian first.
- Be prepared to trailer your horse to a referral center. With the shortage of vets, being proactive and transporting your own horse to a clinic may be the timeliest way to get needed emergency care.
- Understand your budget and insurance options before urgent care is needed.
Being an equine veterinarian isn’t an easy job, but it is a rewarding one. This is especially true when clients like you build a relationship based on respect and trust. By working together, your veterinarian can focus less on job stresses and more on giving all equine patients the best care. Because let’s face it, horses are really the favorite—for you and for veterinarians.
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