Caring for animals is an ancient pursuit and the formal training for veterinarians is well over one hundred years old. Until the 1960's, however, veterinarians depended on assistance from either the animal owner or from lay people trained on the job. Formal veterinary nursing programs developed in North America and the UK and have spread around the world. Most programs result in a diploma granting the holder a formal title and in many cases, privileges not held by lay people. In some countries, advanced degrees in veterinary nursing are now available.
Despite the proliferation of formal veterinary nurse training programs, the profession has yet to achieve the status it deserves. Veterinary nurses, on average, do not enjoy a long career and are generally not paid as well as the level of their training would dictate. Veterinarians in North America complain of the difficulty in finding a qualified technician despite a growing number of training programs. Many surveys and studies have examined the reasons veterinary nurses leave the profession so early and the common conclusion appears to be that they are under-utilized. This leads to burnout, low self-esteem and job frustration. It also costs the veterinary practice owner money that could be used to pay nurses what they deserve.
A guiding principle of good business practice is that to make efficient use of its resources, for any particular task, an organization should employ the person at the lowest level at which there exists sufficient ability and information to carry it out. In other words, don't assign work to someone who is over qualified. Why then, do we constantly see veterinarians taking blood samples, taking radiographs and giving injections when the veterinary nurse is more than qualified to do this?
A 1994 survey conducted by the North American Veterinary Technicians Association (now the National Association of Veterinary Technicians in America--NAVTA) showed that veterinarians were guilty of performing tasks that should have been assigned to nurses. An updated survey in 2000 revealed that, although the situation was improving, nurses were still under utilized. This was particularly true for tasks in which more than one person was needed such as taking radiographs or collecting blood samples but also included nutrition counseling and giving vaccinations (other than Rabies).
On the website of the NAVTA a list of duties qualified veterinary technicians are trained to do includes:
Physical Examination and Patient History
Caring for the Hospitalized Patient
Administration of Medication and Vaccines
Clinical Laboratory Procedures
Office/ Hospital Management
If veterinarians allowed nurses to carry out these duties could they not use their own high level of education and training in better ways? The answer is yes! The NAVTA study showed that using a technician effectively for 12 common procedures, the average American small animal practice would save $18,601 which represents a 25% increase in profitability. Not only would the technicians experience greater job satisfaction but the increased profits could be used to pay them what they're worth.
Other practice studies have demonstrated that in US practices with average doctor transactions (ADT) of $85100, veterinary technicians earn $12-15/hour whereas in practices with an ADT greater than $100, technicians earn $15-18/hour. One way the ADT can be increased is by assigning appropriate duties to the nurse, allowing a thorough medical work up of each case.
By now, as a veterinary technician/nurse, you're asking yourself, "Why is he telling me this, shouldn't he be telling the veterinarians?" Most veterinarians are aware of this information but are slow to adopt it because as a group, they are cautious, independent and let's face it, many are control freaks! This leaves it to those of us in the veterinary nursing profession to convince these skeptics. Veterinary and veterinary technician associations can bang the drum, but each individual nurse has to demonstrate their own abilities and professionalism in order to convince their practice manager of the need to utilize and compensate nurses appropriately. Let's look at some ways to do this.
A qualified veterinary technician should exude professionalism on the job at all times. This begins with appearance and demeanour. I am always impressed with the way British veterinary nurse's dress for work. The uniform tells the public and their colleagues that they are proud of their profession. In North American practices, the dress code tends to be more casual but a clean and appropriate dress code still sends a very positive signal. Professionalism is not just appearance but also the way in which you interact with patients, clients and co-workers. Remember that 70% of communication is nonverbal--your body language and facial expressions will send strong signals before you say a word. Avoid slang language and gossip and be a positive influence on those around you. Take your job seriously by striving for high performance standards and "going the extra mile". Would you like to be known as the best radiographer? The best dental hygienist?
Respect for Practice Goals
The veterinary nurse is part of a health care team that has common goals centered around the well-being of the patients, clients and the practice. Take these goals seriously and remember veterinary medicine is a profession, not a hobby. Many practices have a mission statement-do you know what it is? Use this mission statement as a guide to your behaviour at work. Take pride in your role on the team and recognize that the practice is a financial operation and you contribute to its success.
Be a Star
If you're going to do something, why not do it well? Why not be the best employee you can be? This will undoubtedly lead to a greater trust in you on the part of your employer and co-workers. The result should be greater use of your skills and also better compensation.
Here are some questions to see if you're a star in your practice:
1. Do you maintain a positive attitude each day?
2. Do you communicate honestly and effectively with all members of your team?
3. Do you seek continuing education opportunities?
4. Do you set personal performance goals?
5. Do you believe your practice team makes a significant difference in the lives of people and pets?
6. Do you treat clients and co-workers with respect?
Be a Mentor
The qualified veterinary technician has a high level of training and can be a tremendous resource for training others in the practice. One reason veterinarians are doing things they are over qualified to do is that many jobs need two people and one has to hold so it ends up being the technician. If the technician has a veterinary assistant trained to restrain animals for instance, the veterinarian has no excuse to take part. Although veterinary assistant programs are developing, most of this training occurs on the job. The veterinary nurse can be the trainer and role model for someone who would like to work in practice but may not choose the formal nursing program. The ability to teach is not natural to some-it requires patience, strong communication skills and a great deal of empathy. The rewards are great however, as you see people develop skills and pride in their work. The result is a stronger, more effective team with each member playing an important role in the group's success.
Whatever the title, the veterinary nurse or technician is an invaluable part of the veterinary professional team. Successful practice owners recognize this and utilize their nurses to their full potential and reward them appropriately. Successful veterinary nurses exude professionalism and earn the respect of their bosses and co-workers which leads to greater responsibilities and greater rewards. Remember, your job satisfaction is not just up to them, it's up to you too!
References are available upon request.