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Lessons Learned From a Trying Year

NAVC Chief Veterinary Officer Dana Varble looks back at 2020 to take the good with the bad and prepare for a better year.

Dana VarbleDVM, CAE, Chief Veterinary Officer of the NAVC

Dana Varble received her veterinary degree from University of Illinois in 2003 and earned her Certified Association Executive designation from ASAE in 2021. She has practiced clinical medicine in exotic pet, small animal general practice and emergency medicine and serves as an associate veterinarian for Chicago Exotics Animal Hospital.

She has spoken locally, nationally, and internationally on herpetological and exotic animal medicine and the state of the veterinary profession. She served as the president of the Association of Reptile and Amphibian Veterinarians in 2013 and presently works as the managing editor of the Journal of Herpetological Medicine and Surgery for ARAV.

In 2015, she joined the NAVC and in January of 2020 she was named Chief Veterinary Officer. As an NAVC spokesperson and a veterinary industry expert, she promotes animal health and the veterinary profession through media interviews and appearances including CNN, Steve Dale’s Pet World, Pet Life Radio, NBC News, local media outlets and others.

She shares her home with a mixed-up brown dog named Hannah, a Leonberger named Kodi, a tank of cichlids, four ball pythons, and a domestic human, Patrick, and his kids Lexi, and PJ.

Lessons Learned From a Trying Year

The New Year is always a time for evaluation, reflection, and planning. While it might be easy to write all of 2020 off as a loss and move on to 2021, that doesn’t recognize all that we managed to accomplish under great pressure, and it wouldn’t help us learn from our mistakes so we can have a better future.

Some of you may know that I have a jack-of-all trades role. I work for the NAVC, a nonprofit that has deep ties and partnerships in the veterinary and animal health industry. I still routinely (albeit in a very limited fashion) spend time as a clinical veterinarian and was even a nervous curbside client this year as my own personal dog needed dental work I was not able to provide. I was extremely grateful in 2020 to have all those perspectives come together.

I have never been more proud to be a veterinarian and a champion for animal health. Pet adoptions soared and the importance of the human-animal bond became clear in 2020. The perspective of veterinarians proved valuable from a One Health perspective in responding to the pandemic and the development of a SARS-CoV-2 vaccination. Veterinarians in the span of less than a year devised and improved a clinical services delivery method (curbside service for the win!) that allowed animal health services to be deemed essential and reduced risks to human health while allowing animals everywhere to continue to be the sponge for all the human emotional overload. In fact, in the face of a reduced economy, indicators show veterinary clinic revenue increased over 7% in 2020.

However, being the type of person that tends to hit every branch of a mistake tree as I fall out of it, I didn’t want to miss an opportunity to learn and potentially avoid some of the hard lessons of 2020. In a normal year, there are always instances where I had the ability to do better—and usually those are the hardest lessons. They involve a certain degree of self-honesty that is hard to face. I need to listen more, allocate my time better, and get on a sleep schedule for once!

In 2020 there were challenges that felt like failures and far too often it just wasn’t possible for me to do any better. Still unwilling to just let it go, I was able to see that I had put myself in a few no-win situations. I said yes when I should have said no. I overcommitted and underdelivered. This year changed my boundaries, and I didn’t recognize that at times.

Perhaps the unavoidable consequences hit the hardest in 2020. We lost connections, lost colleagues, and struggled to cope with the difficult, but necessary, limitations of isolation.

All that reflection without planning is really the fodder of our thousand collective journals, meditations, and Zoom happy hour chats. One thread connects the industry, nonprofits, clinics, and even clients: how do we sustain this? My colleagues in clinics, laboratories, packing plants, and even offices around the world and I feel the current demand for veterinary care isn’t sustainable. We are surviving when we want to be thriving and there is no end in sight. The veterinary industry is hiring and, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, it is expected to grow by 16% from 2019 to 2029, creating more than 14 000 new jobs. A shortage is inevitable.

How do we face the future, move from surviving to thriving, and refocus on mental health and sustainability? For starters in 2021, I offer the following observations:

First, we must change our mindset. There is no pride in bragging about 60-hour work weeks; years without vacations or days off; and nights, weekends, and holidays we’ve missed. We need to celebrate and enjoy the time we need to connect with our families, friends, and even ourselves. There is a multitude of studies showing shorter work weeks can be more productive and the response in veterinary medicine seems to largely be: “well that won’t work for us.” While I realize our industry has limitations, that response does not reflect the creativity and solutions that were displayed in our pivot to curbside in 2020. If we are able to switch our service model and create IM pins from spinal needles to fix a fractured chicken tibiotarsus, we can surely find creative work plans that allow ourselves and our staff to be not only amazing animal health advocates but also reliable friends, active hobbyists, loyal family members, and better colleagues at work every day.

While all my colleagues I have talked to are stressed and tired, there are certainly some who are managing through curbside and the pandemic relatively well. What they all have in common are established boundaries, both personal and professional. Clinics that have collaboratively set lengths for appointments; limit same day, urgent care, or emergency appointments in both number and time of day; and adjust their appointment schedule based on staff available have not lost revenue, in fact they have often increased revenue. More is clearly not more. While clinics have increased revenue, the number of visits was actually slightly decreased in 2020.1 Despite previous trends, more short appointments are not revenue drivers. Quality over quantity has been key. Consider your plan for a transition back to exam room service over curbside. How can you continue to ensure that each client gets the same attention to detail, time, and care that they got in 2020? What other services and service methods can we continue to offer? Is it even worth shortening appointment times again? You may be surprised to find it is not.

Lastly, in 2020 our increased work burden has been shared. Receptionists, veterinary nurses/technicians, assistants, and practice managers have felt every moment of 2020 with us. The professionals that surround every veterinarian, that make our job possible, were ready to help us carry this weight. While they have suffered the same stresses, it has never been more apparent that we must utilize all their skills to the fullest to thrive. Veterinary technicians/nurses have frequently cited poor or low utilization of the full extent of their skills as a source of job dissatisfaction and a reason they plan on switching careers—away from veterinary medicine. Consider asking your support staff at their annual reviews what skills they want to learn, practice, and utilize in 2021. Watch for more information on veterinary technician/nurse utilization from NAVC and join us for a panel on veterinary nurse utilization at VMX Live in Orlando and VMX Virtual in June. Develop training programs and build trust so you as a veterinarian are utilizing your skills in the most efficient ways possible which will in turn allow our support staff to be fulfilled in their roles and careers as well.

At NAVC, we typically spend quite a bit of time networking and talking with veterinary professionals throughout the year: hearing your concerns, needs, and successes first-hand. The lack of in-person events and our awareness of the increasing work demands of already busy veterinary clinics kept us at arm’s length. Phone calls, Zoom meetings, and emails can only convey so much. We understand now, more than ever how important the connections our staff, have with our community and we will do better. I hope you will join us in making 2021 the beginning of an even better future.

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