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So Many Other Things: The Reality of Veterinary Practice Part 6 - For Love or Money

Posted in So Many Other Things... @ Mar 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: 11.14pm Today's lunch roster. 15 March 2018.


Part 6: For Love or Money

One prominent factor permeating dealings between practice staff and clients is cost. It was talked about a lot at Brudine, often in the context of affordability.

It comes down to the inherent duality of veterinary practice as both caring service and private business, with cost the friction point between the two. Every service, diagnostic and treatment has a price that can surprise clients, if not cause them to respond with criticism and sometimes anger.

After six years as a receptionist at Brudine, Kelly Haslop considers Medicare a factor.

“We have clients who say there should be Medicare for pets and some are actually under the impression that there is. Explaining to those clients the reality of why the price of their pets’ health care appears to be much more than their own bulk billed healthcare is interesting and challenging at times. Having Medicare is a necessity for most people, but unfortunately it has given an unrealistic misconception of what healthcare actually costs, which undervalues the veterinary industry completely.”

Receptionist Kelly Haslop on the phone with a client seeking a last minute appointment on a Saturday. 24 March 2018

In public forums, it’s not hard to find clients accusing practices of being “money-making machines”. However, this seems incongruous with even just a cursory breakdown of Brudine’s financials. After wages, operating and maintenance costs, insurance, consumables and medication, the practice makes around 5% profit per year and, according to Practice Manager Bri Smith, most of that goes back into the business.

“Any investors in the business are probably not making very much money,” says Smith.

Criticism can also be directed at individual vets, who are sometimes labelled as “being in it for a buck”. Without an exhaustive analysis of veterinary incomes across the country, this doesn’t seem fair for most vets, particularly those in their first few years of practice.

According to the ABC, wages are relatively low for new graduates: after six years of study costing $64,524 on average, the average wage vets after graduation is $51,600, a full $10,000 under the median for all new graduates according to the 2017 Quality Indicators for Learning and Teaching Graduate Survey Report. This wage falls below the government’s $54,896 minimum for paying back HECS, outlined by the Good Universities Guide organisation.

Earning a reasonable income can take years, specialisation or a move into government work. The approach Dr Deborah Williams took was to buy Brudine in 2005. Williams says, “To earn anything, to even earn up to what a teacher was earning, you had to own a practice.” As a single mother of three children, that earning potential was critical.

10.25am Practice Manager Bri Smith (left), co-owners Dr Deborah Williams (middle) and Dr Fiona Starr with Son Reuben, have a business meeting at Starr's house on her day off. 28 February 2018

Support staff aren’t earning much either. Though Brudine pays above the award, Nurse Skye Longley is studying Paramedicine/Nursing at university to move into a higher paying career.

Longley said, “When I was 25, I was an old vet nurse. And I feel like a lot of young people come straight out of school and they’re 18, 19, 20, and go straight into nursing then realise that the work doesn’t pay quite as well as the salaries their mates are earning who went into the public service, or to university. Many of those nurses are now starting something else.”

Lower pay as a part of veterinary services is understood and accepted, and gives credence to the idea of the work being sometimes considered a calling. Because of this, criticism can sting that little bit more.

Smith says, “I find it really hard when we get abuse or negative feedback in the form of generalised comments like, ‘vets don’t care about animals’ or ‘vets only care about money’ or ‘they don’t care about anything except meeting KPIs’, which we don’t do here.”

4.42pm. A vet nurse's work is never done (with Nurse Julie Marten). 6 July 2018

In fact, not having KPIs and Brudine’s “philosophy of not selling things to people they don’t need,” was a key factor in Dr Karen Viggers’ choice to work there. Viggers recalls being asked during interviews at other practices questions like, “How good are you at flogging stuff?”

Smith says, “I understand people asking, ‘Why does it cost so much?’ It’s what comes after that, the terrible tirades that some clients will go on. I’ve had people yelling in my face out the front, in front of other clients, saying that I don’t care about animals and that I just want them to come in and spend money.”

11.10am Nurse Chelsea Rose fills in at reception, and settles Rebecca Nyman's and Alfie's account.    24 February 2019

Haslop says a challenge for practice receptionists is dealing with, “the people that don’t want to pay.”

“They expect good service, and for you to do everything you can for them, then they scoff at the charges and expect that they shouldn’t have to pay. Or they come in for their consult and tell you that they can’t afford to pay until they are on their way out.”

But Haslop says the hardest part is, “when you have a pet that has come in under some sort of emergency situation, or they’re ill and the owner has chosen a host of testing and procedures but, in the end, their pet dies. The owner leaves, paying a massive bill, without their pet. I find it really hard putting that payment through and telling them how much it is.”­­­­­­

Animal care can be expensive, particularly for emergencies or complicated cases. One vet at Brudine thinks owners should be aware of that and should plan accordingly.

“That’s part of responsible pet ownership; having pet insurance or your own funds available.”

11.06am. Nurse Skye Longley finishes expressing an infected anal gland. 10 March 2018

Because not doing so can challenge a vet’s ability to provide care. Recalling a case in which an owner could not afford the necessary testing, this vet said, “If the client spent a couple of thousand dollars on the dog from day one, the dog would have survived.”

Though, even if owners are responsible, timing and life can still get in the way.

As Dr Gwen Shirlow said, “You get a range of reasons as to why finances are constrained, and that can be anything from being on the pension through to sudden major expenditures in the family that mean pet care finance is not on their priority list.”

4.09pm. Practice Manager Bri Smith and her mum, co-owner Dr Deborah Williams. Smiths started       working in the practice by earning pocket money cleaning kennels as a very young teenager.                19 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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