An effective relief vet has the medical, surgical, and communication expertise requisite of all vets in their particular scope of practice. But there are additional skills and mindsets required to thrive in this niche.

We are more than just warm bodies with veterinary degrees that will “baby sit” the clinic…

In order to do our jobs well and genuinely support the practices in which we work, we must play multiple roles in addition to that of medical practitioner.

The Chameleon

Clinic cultures vary widely and one of the fun things about being a relief vet is to observe different practice styles. Working the range from single doctor rural practice to urban corporate specialty and emergency practice highlights the wonderful diversity of our profession and the clients we serve.

As relief vets, it’s most supportive of the practice for us to conform to the clinic culture rather than expect them to adjust to our style. This is reflected in simple things like the dress code, practice style, and client communication. If doctors wear scrubs, white lab coats, or business casual clothes, then dress professionally and accordingly.

As a side note to this, it’s always helpful to either wear a name tag or have your name embroidered on your scrubs and / or lab coat. This detail is very helpful for staff and clients.

If the practice style is formal and systematic then I adjust my behavior to support that and if it’s relaxed and casual I shift my approach to match. When it comes to communicating with clients, we all have our own unique techniques that are deeply tied to our personalities.

I’m not suggesting that you should or even can change this completely, but there are subtle ways to adjust your tone depending on the clinic thereby supporting the client bond to the practice.

The Contortionist

Flexibility is paramount when practicing as a relief vet. Availability of products, diagnostics, and staff proficiency will vary widely.

Some clinic cultures are fast paced and hectic, others are relaxed. Some clinics will have highly skilled staff and others will be limited requiring us to engage our technical expertise.

Hospitals will have different work flows and the day will proceed more smoothly if we adapt. Adhering to a clinic’s particular vaccine protocol will prevent confusion with staff and clients.

Deep knowledge of appropriate antibiotic choices, different suture options, alternative sedation protocols, and a thousand ways to fix an ear hematoma will come in handy. Of course, all this flexibility should remain within the bounds of the law and our own ethical standards of practice.

The Cryptographer

As medical practitioners we know the importance of legible and complete medical records. All that’s needed to be reminded of the perils of poorly written medical notes is to read the AVMA PLIT newsletter stories of the repeated misfortunes of Drs. A and B.

Yet all of us that have worked as clinical vets know that consistent perfection in record keeping can be hard to attain. Medical record quality and legibility vary widely.

One of the relief vet’s superpowers is deciphering illegible or incomplete medical records. We’re sometimes called upon to decode hieroglyphics, read between the lines, and look for other clues in order to discern a patient’s medical history.

Sometimes we are left operating completely in the dark. In these cases we must practice the art of extracting a pertinent history from the client without letting them know we can’t figure it out from the medical records.

Make no mistake, the client will often flat out say, “isn’t that in the chart?”. In order to support the client’s bond to the practice, we try very, very hard not to say, “Actually, Mrs. Jones, no. It’s not.”

The Documentarian

Meticulous record keeping is even more crucial for relief vets for multiple reasons. Staff will not know your short hand the way they may understand that of their primary doctors. We don’t have relationships with the clients making our risk of misunderstandings with them greater.

Clear, thorough, and organized charts will help the vets who take over the case when we’re gone.

Remember, sometimes those that come next in the process are other relief vets and are picking things up from scratch just like we were.

Recording our recommended plan for further diagnostics and treatment options in addition to documenting the visit is helpful. Discern pet owner’s goals and include this in the record as well.

By applying comprehensive record keeping we provide a roadmap for others, increase client confidence with the practice, and make work flow smoother and more efficient for the entire medical team.

The Diplomat

As relief vets, our primary clients are the practices we serve. Our main responsibility is to support the clinic where we’re working. This is why they hire us.

Of course, using our best medical skills to take care of their patients is one of the ways in which we provide this service. Another is to support the client’s bond to the practice.

This is where the arts of communication and psychology come into play. We can show positive support for the practice and its team members when communicating with clients. Read the chart, at least the last visit, prior to going into an appointment.

Note the medical and medication history then ask the client about it even if the current visit is unrelated. Not only will we get useful medical information, this indicates that although we are not their primary vet, we care and are informed.

This small act really impresses clients and will disarm their suspicion of you.

Smoothing over ruffled customers may be required on occasion.

Sometimes staff will try to engage us in their office politics because we are a new ear. The best strategy is to deflect and ignore these comments.

If we’re grumpy, tuck that mood away and pretend we aren’t because our moods will dictate the entire vibe of the clinic for that day. We must engage our highest level of emotional intelligence in order to successfully lead varied teams in multiple clinics and interact with unfamiliar clients.

Relief vets are a unique breed of veterinarian. By virtue of having experienced multiple practice styles, we bring a breadth of knowledge and expertise to the table that goes beyond our medical educations.

If you’re a relief vet, share some other superpowers that you engage when traveling to different practices. If you are someone who hires relief vets, what skills would you like to see them bring to the practice?