Can you play the fiddle? Well, neither can Dr. Brianna Harris, but she will one day! Living a guilt-free life, Dr. Harris has discovered her calling to alleviate burnout both for herself and for her colleagues as best she can. This Longmont, Colorado local embraces the general practice relief life, loves mentoring, and knows the importance of educating her clinics and clients – your presence is felt even after you have gone home. Oh, and she was once almost an equine surgeon and a UPS driver. Welcome, Dr. Brianna Harris!
What inspired you to become a veterinarian?
I’m one of the “I’ve wanted to be a vet as long as I can remember” types. Oddly, I never read James Herriot, but that type of vet was the picture I held in my head for many years. The science, the medicine, and the idea of working with animals were the primary driving forces when I was a young kid planning my future. After managing my first cat bite abscess with the help and direction of our family small animal vet, the idea that I could fix my own animals when they were injured appealed to me.
What roles have you had within the veterinary profession? How about outside of this industry?
In terms of jobs, I have been a babysitter, a pet sitter, a cashier at PetSmart and a kennel attendant at a veterinary clinic boarding facility. During undergrad, I worked in a small animal research lab at the vet school and volunteered both in an equine research lab and as an ICU foal care member both during undergrad and again in veterinary school. I have worked at a local humane society as both a kennel attendant and veterinary assistant, was a trail guide, and helped with 4-H at the barn where my horse boarded during my undergrad years.
While in vet school, I worked for an equine research lab and as a stable hand in the equine research park where my initial goal was to be an equine surgeon. In hindsight, I thankfully did not match the year after my equine internship, and I initially redirected my goal to working for UPS. Why, you ask? Working for UPS was a dream job after my internship because the drivers always seem so content. A short-lived dream, I soon took my first job as a veterinarian doing mixed practice where I worked for 5 years. It was a great experience with wonderful mentorship and an excellent group of colleagues and coworkers. As much as I loved the large animals, I did not love the on-call, and due to a location change that moved me closer to family, my subsequent job was working as an associate in a small animal GP practice for 3 years. I did, however, get to see the occasional chicken and potbellied pig.
Outside of working in veterinary medicine, I volunteer as a veterinary consult contact for a breed rescue group in situations when they have a difficult medical or behavioral case.
What made you switch to relief practice?
Several aspects of relief practice appealed to me. While I liked my associate job, the thought of driving to the same location for 30+ years was daunting. Seeing the same clients and pets was daunting. And I was exhausted from the pressure of working with clients who held certain expectations of you because you have known them for so long. They look at you as “their vet” not only in the clinic setting, but also when you see them outside of the hospital. I no longer wanted to be the James Herriot kind of veterinarian I had initially revered.
I realized that I wanted to be a great practitioner for both the clients and the animals, but I also needed to be able to distance myself from the draining emotional needs that follow you from day to day as an associate. Some practitioners thrive in this kind of environment, but for me, I was burning out. While I care about pets and their owners, burnout of the veterinarians around me was apparent and prevalent, and I decided that I should direct that care to my fellow colleagues. I wanted to help. It was the worst and best realization I’ve ever had.
What are your favorite things about being a relief vet?
At first, I experienced somewhat of an identity crisis. I did not have many other roles outside of being a veterinarian who was deeply embedded within the community. The only hobby I had kept for myself was running because it helps keep me grounded. I wanted the opportunity and the energy to be more than that.
My favorite things about relief work? I get to help clinics maintain a healthier work-life balance for their associate veterinarians by allowing my colleagues the opportunity to take a break and not feel guilty about it while also doing the same for myself.
Relief work gives me time and choice. I am in more control of how I spend my time. I have control of how, when, and where I practice. If I don’t like it, I have the choice to work elsewhere. For the most part, I am able to leave work at work and not take it home with me. My emotional exhaustion is lessened. If I schedule myself a long week with a clinic that chooses to overbook, it is my fault. Relief work allows me to have more in control of my earning potential and to pay down my student debt. If I want to make more, I work more. If I need to take a break, I can give myself one without guilt. If I want more time for hobbies, I make it happen.
Working with a wider variety of other veterinarians, veterinary staff, and clientele alike, I continue to grow and learn. There is something about the constant change and the unexpected that appeals to my personality and helps me feel less stagnant in my own practice of veterinary medicine.
What are your least favorite things about being a relief vet?
Initially, the anxiety of finding enough work combined with a non-compete that required me to drive a lot further from home caused stress. However, I am 1.5 years out being a relief vet and have yet to be short on work. Getting sick or injured does also have a more direct impact on my take home. That said, I never took time off as an associate when sick or injured, and I am much healthier as a relief vet, so it balances out. Occasionally, I miss not being able to follow up on cases, but at the same time, the practice of being okay with that has taught me how to let go, stick to my boundaries, and leave work at work.
How do you feel that relief practice supports the veterinary profession as a whole?
Relief practice gives clinics the ability to better support their regular staff by allowing for needed breaks without the guilt. Without relief help, clinics are short staffed when associates take time off. The associates left behind consequently have an increased workload. When the associate on break returns, the recently returned associate now has more work to do in addition to carrying their burden of guilt for leaving in the first place. The cycle continues, and no one ever truly gets a break that allows them to fully recover and relax. My old boss called it ‘vacation tax’.
Sure, a relief veterinarian can’t do everything. Some clients will always be adamant in their request to speak only with “their” regular doctor, but the use of a relief vet is also a tool that helps clients slowly adapt to the idea of seeing a different veterinarian from time to time. The long-term effects of this can help veterinary medicine, the practice, and the team. Veterinary medicine has grown so much, that in order to maintain an efficient practice flow and keep the sanity of the veterinary staff, client flexibility is a must.
What supplies or equipment do you bring with you on the job?
Part of doing relief is about being flexible and working with what you have in front of you. I bring a smile in addition to my stethoscope, my smart phone (used mostly for VIN searches, calculator, and personal notes on my own anesthetic/sedation preferences), my packed lunch, and my coffee. I also keep a binder with copies of my state license and DEA certificate. And extra scrubs are a must. Always being cold, I typically wear a professional indoor jacket or have one available.
What do you look for in a practice when deciding to cover shifts for them?
At first, I was fairly open to working anywhere, but as time has progressed, I am learning what qualities make a clinic stand out. I look for thorough and timely communication, honesty in relief vet expectations, willingness and helpfulness of technical staff, standard of care, appropriate appointment booking and patient load expectations, a respect of work-life balance, and timely payment. I usually plan an initial visit to the clinic to meet staff and the owners/management so that we can get a feel for one another and put a face to a name. After the meet and greet, I try to schedule a paid half or full day, so that we can make sure it is a good fit prior to further scheduling.
Have you picked up any unique practice tips while being a relief vet? These could be related medicine, workflow, practice organization, or anything really.
My SOAP format has improved a ton! I always wrote a decent amount of info down, but my organization is much better now. I have learned tips and tricks and new ways of utilizing varied software systems which I, in turn, pass along to other clinics. My blood drawing technique has improved, as I work at several clinics that are short on technical staff. Since I am not always available after a shift to follow up on patients, I have become more consistent and effective in providing thorough client handouts.
What is your most memorable relief job?
The first clinic that motivated me to start doing relief was one that needed maternity leave coverage, so I knew that I’d have a couple days per week covered for at least 3 months. The clinic practices great medicine with a solid client base, and they were incredibly supportive of me and my new endeavor. I happened to have picked just the right place to get my (relief) feet wet. I still do shifts there, and I will always be grateful for their willingness to have a newbie relief vet work for them.
What advice would you give new relief vets? (Alternatively, what advice would you give someone who is thinking about being a relief vet?)
If you are confident in your skills as a veterinarian yet want to try a new role in the profession, go for it. If you end up not liking relief work, you can always go back to whatever you were doing before. It’s not for everyone, but that can be said of anything, and you only know for sure if you give it a go. Charge what your education and time are worth to you, as the clinic is your client. Be flexible, but do not fall over. As a relief vet, you have a bit more say in what you will and will not do, so do what you are comfortable doing, knowing that may change from place to place. Be honest with the clinic and yourself about expectations and highlight the value that you bring to their practice. You are not simply “just another vet” or space filler. You are happily walking into a clinic with virtually no knowledge of your surroundings or resources and expected to practice the best medicine, communication, and people handling you possibly can while still maintaining revenue for your practice client. This is a skill. Not everyone has it. Value that skill.
How has the global pandemic affected your relief practice?
I have been fortunate as far as work goes. I had a cancellation for a scheduled CE, but I was able to fill those dates. Many of the clinics I work for are single doctor practices, and pandemic or not, they still need breaks. I had a non-COVID cold at one point and cancelled a few shifts, but clinics appreciated that I was being mindful of their safety. The main concern I have had with the pandemic is my exposure risk and the potential risk my presence brings.
What are your hobbies / passions outside of work?
Aside from running, I enjoy gardening, painting, hiking, enjoying nature, and time spent with family and friends. Having been a while since I have ridden, I may get back into the horse world after I’ve paid down my student debt a bit more. I am also planning to learn the fiddle someday.
Anything else you’d like to share?
The opportunity to practice veterinary medicine as a relief vet has revitalized my love of the profession. I am making vet med work for me, not the other way around. I’m still early in my relief journey and may find that I need a different direction in a few years, but having taken a chance to redefine what it means to be a veterinarian to me, I have redefined myself. To all of my fellow colleagues out there that feel trapped in their current existence of veterinary medicine, I beseech you to make a change, whatever that may be. To all the clinics out there considering hiring a relief vet to cover shift gaps, ask your current associates their thoughts on it, as I suspect they would be glad to have the help.
To learn more or contact Dr. Brianna Harris click here.