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So Many Other Things: The Reality of Veterinary Practice Part 4 - It takes two to practice

Posted in So Many Other Things... @ Feb 14th 2019 - By Michael Weinhardt, Michael Weinhardt Photography

Holding a mirror to the veterinary industry to show the realities you work with every day.

A photographic documentary that relates what working in a busy veterinary practice looks like - the highs, lows, challenges, day-to-day, unusual and extraordinary.

“If only vetting just consisted of treating sick animals. But it didn’t. There were so many other things.”

- James Herriot, If Only They Could Talk

Image: 9.20am Dr Jessica Winsall and her dog, Narla. 24 February 2018


Part 4: It takes two to practice

Recap.... It took me a couple of months at the Brudine Veterinary Hospital, a small/exotic animal practice in Canberra, to glimpse the essential truths of veterinary practice.

There is little doubt that the veterinary practice someone works for can impact the quality and quantity of their career, sometimes beneficially, sometimes not. The importance of finding the right practice cannot be overstated, especially for new graduates starting their careers.

One way to consider the suitability of a practice is through its operational characteristics: staff range and numbers, location, business model, clientele and types of animals treated.

Another way is through the set of philosophies, or ethos, that define its purpose and character, and permeate and influence its operation.

Central to Brudine’s ethos is the idea of providing care to owners as much as their pets, which grew from important experiences in co-owner Dr Deborah William’s upbringing.

Williams recalled, “Mum was always in community work,” and, “My sister was born – when I was nine or ten – with down syndrome, so we were really involved in the whole community.”

Williams was unsurprisingly drawn to a career in social work but high school grades gave her other options and she elected to do a veterinary science degree. Williams’ choice might superficially seem like a deviation from her initial aspirations, but it was an evolution.

“I get inspiration from helping people. I didn’t do the vet stuff just because I love animals either. That’s not a very good reason. Obviously, I loved animals. I had a dog and I was always drawn to animals. You can’t do it if you don’t love animals. But my motivation was to help people.”

“I was really lucky because veterinary science meant I was able to work with animals and I was a social worker.”

After working at Brudine Veterinary Hospital for a few years, Williams bought the practice in 2005, allowing her to align the practice’s ethos with her own. Perhaps because of that, the practice grew.

Williams immediately hired Dr Karen Viggers, who said she was there, “to make sure Deb didn’t get emotionally overloaded.” In 2012, Williams needed a surgeon and brought Dr Fiona Starr onboard before hiring Dr Charlie Webb in 2014. Vet nurse, Stephanie Robertson, was employed in 2008 and ultimately became Brudine’s Head Nurse. Williams’ daughter, Bri Smith, who grew up in the practice, “hanging around reception annoying people,” eventually become Brudine’s Practice Manager.

Inge Eccles has brought in Kensie, a Shar Pei, with "Shar Pei Fever". One symptom can be amyloidosis, a build-up of the amyloid protein in the kidneys. There is no cure but blood tests are taken regularly, as Dr Fiona Star and Nurse Kelsey Savage do. The drug, Colchicine (prescribed for Kensie), is used to reduce the frequency and intensity of amyloid protein build-up. 20 February 2018

Brudine’s growth attracted interest from a corporate veterinary services consolidator, though it only reinforced the importance of Brudine’s ethos to Williams and its staff.

“We realised there were a lot of corporates who owned hundreds of practices coming in, offering more factory-style veterinary services,” Williams said. “My philosophy was that I can’t do that to my clients. I wanted to be in control of my own destiny and not told how to have relationships with them.”

Brudine backed itself by investing in a larger purpose-built facility to which it relocated in 2014. The new practice allowed Brudine to expand its range of clinical and diagnostic services, open a specialised small/exotic animal wing and serve a larger clientele. During the expansion, Starr became Williams’ partner in late-2015. The practice now has a twenty-five strong team.

Increasing the size of the practice was not without its challenges, particularly in staying true to its ethos while scaling up its capacity and services.

Williams said, “I’ve tried really hard to not have it like a factory, where you admit the animal and then you don’t see the case because someone else takes it. We work hard to have that rapport with the clients, but it becomes harder and harder as you add more staff because rosters don’t always allow for you to follow everything.”

Rostering means wrangling a blend of full-time, part-time and casual employees, and their leave and award-specified working hours, to keep Brudine staffed for the fifty-six hours a week that it’s open.

The main priority for Brudine is putting together a roster that avoids overworking staff and encouraging them to take leave, although it means staff aren’t always working and so aren’t always available for the clients who want to see them. Brudine had to adapt its service delivery model by encouraging clients to get to know all the staff so they would be comfortable even if they weren’t able to see the same vet every time.

Long-term client, Louise Dobson, talked about the effect of Brudine’s growth on her relationship and experiences with the practice.

“I was very fortunate that we tried Brudine when we did need to see a vet. I was very impressed as it was a small practice back in those days. I had the opportunity to meet all the vets and build a strong relationship with Fiona [Dr Fiona Starr]. Over the past four years, I have seen the practice grow with more vets joining, yet it still has the same family charm it had when I first attended. I love the fact that everyone knows me and knows my dogs – I now have four!”

Dr Karen Viggers (left) pops her head in to see how Dr Gwen Shirlow's Surgery is going. The case was initially handled by Viggers but, since she is assigned to consultations today, Shirlow does the surgery. However Viggers' is curious about how the case is going and takes a look in between consults.              8 March 2018

Retaining this experience, especially when clients can’t see the same vet all the time has meant hiring staff who fitted in with Brudine’s ethos. For Williams, that part of the hiring process is crucial: “The absolute key is hiring people with the people approach and it’s always in the back of the mind.”

Dr Grace Butler, Brudine’s most recently hired vet (at time of writing), described how Brudine expressed this goal during interviews.

“The interviews were not about how good I am as a vet or what I do and don’t know. It was more about me and my personality, what I wanted from a clinic, why I wanted those things and how I would fit in.”

It also gave Butler a feel for the type of practice Brudine was and allowed her to determine if there was overlap with her own requirements for a practice: a “family vibe” similar to the practice she worked as a nurse at prior to studying veterinary science at university.

Finding the greatest overlap between personal and business needs and ethos seems to be an important way to increase the probability of a beneficial working relationship and career experience.

Dr Deborah Williams (left), industry veteran, and Dr Grace Butler, new graduate. 12 February 2018

Dr Jessica Winsall, who started several months earlier than Butler, was also clear about her needs: a larger practice with a wide variety of cases and a strong support system. Winsall said, “I wanted to have people there I could talk to when I started out. I wanted to feel like I could walk out that door and ask someone’s opinion, no matter how long I worked there. Support is important and I would want it in any clinic at any stage of my career. It baffles me that people wouldn’t want that.”

Gut feeling can also play a part. As Winsall said, “I got that vibe; I just felt it straightaway. Fiona and Deborah were lovely. I also picked up on how staff members were talking to each other and how the nurses were talking to each other.”

This contrasts another interview Winsall had prior to joining Brudine.

“I applied for a job in Adelaide. The practice called to interview me, but they didn’t ask any questions about me. Then they offered me a job straightaway, which I felt really uncomfortable about.”

Turning down a job offer may not be possible for everybody, as circumstances can influence choice. But saying “no” is an option and may circumvent an uncomfortable employment with an early departure.

Interviewees should also use interviews to enquire about are workplace conditions, expectations and support. For new graduates, this is important for determining what their initial experiences might be, from “deep end” to “gently-gently”, and which of those they are suited to.

Dr Fiona Starr outlined Brudine’s approach for new graduates.

“We ensure there is an experienced vet rostered on with new graduates and we also encourage them to call on anyone if they have questions. We allow for longer consults and provide regular breaks during consulting hours to take a breather and catch up. We give them a four-day weekly roster, with a maximum of two Saturdays a month, often only one.”

Head Nurse Stephanie Robertson (left), Nurse Chelsea Rose (middle) and Dr Grace Butler try to sedate Zac. Knowing Zac can be uncomfortable in these situations means they can protect themselves and Zac using a muzzle and a towel. 9 March 2018

No matter how much effort is put into finding the right practice, there is a risk that the “right practice” and the job as described may differ in reality.

Dr Karen Viggers had a passion for horses and consequently sought a position with a significant equine vetting component. She thought she’d found that in her first job.

“They told me it would be fifty percent horses, fifty percent small animals.”

Viggers’ actual role was markedly different.

“I had to beg to get one horse call a week but was thrown into small animal work.” Viggers suggested the practice gave her predominately small animal work because it was higher volume and brought in more money.

Brudine’s approach to ethos and hiring seems to have brought together the right people to the right practice for them, even if a couple of staff left during Brudine’s growth to work in smaller practices.

Viggers, who has been there since 2005, described what kept her there. “When I started at Brudine I was looking for part-time work so I could also spend time with my family. It turned out that Deb’s philosophy was like mine – she’s always truly cared about animals and their people as well as providing quality service. The transition to being a larger practice had its challenges, but I think Brudine still offers a caring personal touch. That’s why I’ve stayed 14 years.”

Dr Fiona Starr in consultation with Jessica Kraen and Astro. 20 February 2018

Click here to visit the 'So Many Other Things..' Blog Category to read more in the series


About Michael - in his words...


I make long-form photographic essays that are faithful to my subjects and their stories.

I have spent a decade in the USA, Peru, Cuba, and Australia, covering stories about people whose lives I can't not be interested in.

Most recently, I completed a photographic documentary about the reality of veterinary practice, called SO MANY OTHER THINGS. It was shot over a year and released on September 24, 2018.

Previously, I spent from 2012 to 2015 documenting music and friendship in an Australian metal band, FRANKENBOK. 

Other stories I've photographed over the last 10 years can be found in my Archive.

Contact Michael via: Website -  So Many Other Things


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