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Practice Profile: High Street Veterinary Surgery, Rockhampton, Queensland, Australia

Posted in Our Community @ Jun 24th 2021 - By James Westgate, Veterinary Business Journal
How To Build A Veterinary Practice Where Working Mums Dont Just Survive But Thrive

How to build a veterinary practice where working mums don't just survive but thrive!

Few could argue that most business sectors need to do more to support working mothers. For the veterinary profession, finding models that actually work for vet mums is a matter of urgency and not just in the UK – as VBJ discovered when we spoke to practice owner Jocelyn Birch Baker in Queensland, Australia…

Latest estimates suggest around 60 per cent of the veterinary profession in this country is female and that women constitute almost 80 per cent of all new graduates.

Yet, despite this well-documented process of “feminisation”, the vast majority of practice owners and senior managers are men. The reasons for this are in many ways well-understood; women are likely to take career breaks to have children, then find their opportunities to return to work limited by a society that still expects them to shoulder the bulk of the domestic burden.

How to create working environments where working mothers don’t just survive, but thrive, is not so well understood, of course. But one woman who seems to have as good a grasp as anyone is Jocelyn Birch Baker, veterinary surgeon and owner of the High Street Veterinary Surgery.

Based in the cattle city of Rockhampton, Jocelyn employs an all-female team of vets and vet nurses and by playing to their strengths, rather than weaknesses, she runs a happy and highly profitable small animal practice where vet mums seem to thrive.

The importance of a solid support structure

She said: “I worked at a few different practices when I came back to Rockhampton with my children and they were all just very, very aware that I had two children to look after; the nurses would pick up the children if I had extra work to do, so it was really, really good.

“I was very lucky with that, and when I set up my own practice I wanted to be able to offer the right support and build a super-supportive team structure for everyone.

“So many vet mums are struggling; they want to go back to the profession, but they are finding it really hard because of all those commitments – to children, to family, to day care. It is hard.

“I think it is getting harder and harder because things are moving so fast, you have to know all this new information when you walk into a practice. You need to know about the practice management software, you have to know the latest treatments and medications.

“These women want to get back to being that person, that professional, that person who is respected – they love coming to work as it takes these women back to being the person that they are. They get to talk to their peers about veterinary issues, have a laugh and catch up and leave knowing that they have achieved something for that day.

Building a practice with the needs of working mothers at the heart

After graduating in 1983, Jocelyn worked in mixed practice – including IVF work with Brahman cattle before returning to clinical work as a mother to two young children.

With her children off at university, in 2011 Jocelyn decided the time was right to buy her own practice and build a business with the needs of working mothers very much at the heart of its ethos.

A total of six vets work a variety of flexible hours roughly approximate to three FTEs with just one full-time.

She added: “I have six vets, one is currently on maternity leave, and she might be a year out before she comes back, and I have another vet who is back from maternity leave. She does seven or eight days a month with me, and also an on-call night and weekends for us, as her husband can look after the baby so that works really, really well for her and for us, too. She is stepping up to more days now as our full-time vet is doing continuing education and having some well-earned holidays. Her husband has parental leave to use, too.

“Each woman is different and may have different age group kids, and they pretty much choose their own hours. Our practice manager sets up a roster and the vets just fill it in. 

“One of the vets here has commitments on Sundays and so is available other days, and also does on-call whenever needed.”

Helping out, lending a hand & getting the job done

It might all sound complicated, but Jocelyn makes sure her team has the right support and believes having an all-female team can often be a big advantage when it comes to getting the job done.

“I think women have this capacity to understand what is going on and organise themselves so that they can help out, so that when they need a hand someone else will do that for them,” she added.

“We work very collaboratively.

“The entire practice team here is female and most of them are mothers, and there is huge strength in that for me and the business.

“It is rare for us to have things drag on; that is the thing with mums too, they are very time efficient and manage their time well – they want to be out of there by 6pm, they make sure the work is done so they can be out of the door at 6pm.

“I might need six different people to cover for the equivalent of three full-time vets, but that also means I have got experience from six different vets coming into this clinic whenever I need it, rather than the experience of just three.”

Trust in your team & within your team is essential

For the system to work, however, Jocelyn has to put a lot of trust in her staff and her staff puts a lot of trust in each other. But that trust has paid off, with the practice making more money than ever. This is despite the COVID-19 pandemic, which has created even bigger challenges for working mothers, even if Australia has been less adversely affected than other countries.

Jocelyn said: “We are lucky that we have not had it anywhere near as bad as you guys, but women here and elsewhere have still borne the brunt, more so in the pandemic, because we take on the household load, we just do.

“It is expected by society and there is no getting away from that.

“We have a different career structure to what men do – I read an article the other day that pointed out that a man and a woman doing the same job, over a lifetime the woman will have earned A$1million less than the man.

“But you can do something to help with that by making it easier for vet mums to come back to work and do that by having a good practice structure where there is flexibility.

“You need that to avoid burnout. If you have three vets, you are relying on them – they can’t get sick, they can’t have a day off. With six vets, you can find someone to do an extra day or a few hours. Our practice manager just puts it out on WhatsApp and the vets fill in when they would like to come in.”

Rising revenues

She added: “Out-of-hours obligations are shared with a neighbouring local practice. It also has an all-woman practice, and we all appreciate the tag team we have developed to provide great care for our clients and patients while looking after our team members.”

Although not exactly remote by Australian standards in a city of 60,000 people, High Street Veterinary Surgery is nine hours from the nearest specialist meaning the team must be ready to tackle most things that come their way.

Jocelyn said: “We do refer the odd thing if it is needed, but we try to do it ourselves, hence we do really good work-ups, we have telemeds now so we send out x-rays, ultrasounds and clinical notes to specialists if we need a bit of help. We have developed a great relationship with one of the Brisbane specialist centres and they are always happy to help us whenever they can.

“We also have a surgery specialist and a veterinary dermatologist, who come to our practice regularly to ensure the very best of care for our patients. Of course, we always make sure that we learn whatever we can while they are here.”

Although COVID-19 restrictions in Australia have been relatively light compared to those imposed across Europe, the pandemic did have an impact, and Jocelyn and her team did their own share of car park vetting last year.

But despite the disruption, revenue has “shot up” during the past 12 months, during which Jocelyn has learned some useful lessons about client behaviour.

“Because of COVID we have stretched out our consult times to 30 minutes because they were outside and when that ended we went back to the 15-minute consults because we were back inside,” she added.

“But when we went back, I could see everyone was getting a bit rattled and one of the vets asked if we could stretch the consults out to 30 minutes again, so we decided to give it a go.

“Since we put that in we are making more money as we have the time to have conversations with clients and develop that trust with them so they know exactly what is going to happen, and expectations are set properly.”

Making a meaningful impact in the industry

As well as owning High Street Veterinary Surgery, Jocelyn runs a veterinary business consultancy and speaks at congresses about women coming back to work in practice.

It is a subject close to her heart and one that is likely to guide any future developments at the practice.

She said: “I want our clinic to develop, but most of all I want to see more training done in the clinic; there are so many people who want to be vet nurses and I don’t think they get the opportunities to do the practical clinical work that clinics need to provide.

“I would also like to be able to offer mums returning to the profession the chance to come to us for a week and just find their way through a few surgeries, through some consults and talk to a few clients so that they can get back into the groove of working as a vet or a vet nurse again – that would be really meaningful and be a great way for us to help women get the confidence to get back into work after having children.”

Would you like to develop a veterinary practice where working mums thrive?

If you would like to find out how to develop your practice into an environment where working mums thrive then contact Dr Jocelyn Birch Baker (Smooth Operating Vets) to find out about the programs she offers.

A version of this article was published in the May 2021 edition of the Veterinary Business Journal.



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