Do I Need To Hire A New Associate?

Stith Keiser and Jessica Goodman Lee

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Motivation & Needs Analysis
Adding another doctor to your team, and your payroll, is an expensive and time-consuming task, and the motivations for doing so should be well thought out in advance. Prior to embarking on a search for a new associate, there are many questions that need to be asked, not the least of which is, “What am I hoping to gain by adding another veterinarian to my team?” While hiring “right” involves conducting a detailed cost-to-benefit analysis, it also means taking a hard look at the practice’s current level of functionality to determine whether or not there are contributing factors that may be creating a false perception that your team needs an additional veterinarian. You may find that bringing on another doctor is the perfect solution, but a full understanding of both motivation and need can ensure that you don’t make a potentially costly mistake.

Growth
The most common reason for hiring a new associate is growth; simply put, your client and patient base is increasing at such a rapid pace that you no longer have the ability to see appointments in a timely and efficient manner, nor provide the same level of service and care as you had previously. When this occurs, the first step is to evaluate practice efficiency, as well as any other potential underlying issues that may be inhibiting the ability to handle growth. It is often in the best interest of the practice to invest in the expertise of an outside professional to conduct this evaluation, as it can often be hard to see what is right in front of you if you are “living and breathing” it on a daily basis. It is crucial to get objective, solid, and unbiased data with regards to the following:

  • Are the times allotted for appointments appropriate?
  • Is the appointment schedule based on clients’ needs or doctors’ preferences?
  • Is your practice flow streamlined?
  • Is the practice well managed?
  • Are your medical records computerized?
  • Are your doctors working too few hours?
  • Do you have enough staff and are they leveraged appropriately?
  • Do you have the right staff?
  • Is there outdated equipment that may be slowing things down?

If the answers to some of these questions point to the probability that there are internal problems that may very well be affecting your ability to meet the needs of your clients, it is important to address these before jumping head first into bringing on another doctor. Clearly, it is important to resolve these types of issues prior to bringing on a new key team member. Even more importantly, though, there is a strong likelihood that once these internal problems are acknowledged and managed, there may in fact be no need to hire another veterinarian.
For example, you may find that what you really need is another registered technician, or a practice manager. Perhaps the solution may involve adding several veterinary assistants, which will enable doctors to see one to two more appointments per hour. Or consider the fact that computerized medical records means less time the doctors need to spend on charts, which results in additional time to see appointments. Whatever the case may be, it is important to understand that until the performance and functionality of other areas in the practice are fully evaluated, it cannot be accurately determined whether it is solely the lack of a veterinarian that is resulting in the practice’s inability to meet and exceed client expectations.

If, on the other hand, a practice assessment proves that you are not understaffed in other areas, your team members are being leveraged appropriately, and there are no “issues” affecting efficiency, then adding a new associate may be the perfect solution! At this point all indicators point to the determination that without additional doctor availability, your practice will be forced to turn clients away or risk jeopardizing its reputation, due to decreased quality of service and care. There is also a good chance that your current team is feeling the pressure due to overbooking and excessive hours, and bringing on a new doctor will avert the danger of disillusionment and burnout.

Other Motivations
There are several other valid motivations for bringing on a new veterinarian, which aren’t solely dependent on the basic theory of supply and demand. These include:

  • An owner is looking to decrease his/her hours to have more personal time
  • An owner is specifically seeking someone who is interested in eventual partnership or ownership opportunity
  • In anticipation of another associate going on maternity leave or potentially going part-time
  • Choosing to expand the practice’s hours of operation, thereby needing someone to fill these shifts
  • Adding a veterinarian who has specialty training in order to develop a niche market

Just as with a purely need-based scenario, each of these situations requires extensive consideration before moving forward with the hiring process. For example, if you are looking to expand services by hiring a certified acupuncturist or chiropractor, you should start by surveying your clients to see if these are services that interest them. You will also need to do a broader market study to determine whether there is competition and to ensure that you will not only gain new clients due to the offering of these services, but that other practices will be willing to refer patients.

Regardless of motivation, taking on a new veterinarian is one of the most important decisions a business owner must make, and one that requires preparation, an unbiased viewpoint and some serious due diligence.

View the Motivational Assessment Worksheet to help get you started.

Financial Analysis & Expectations: New Graduate or Experienced DVM?
Once it is determined that adding a veterinarian to the payroll is warranted, there are still a myriad of other questions that must be considered before beginning the search for that perfect individual. It is crucial to keep your motivation for hiring (as determined from above) front and center in your mind at all times during this process to ensure that you are seeking candidates who can meet your needs—it is easy to get excited about a fantastic doctor and forget all about the fact that they cannot work the hours that you need!

Whether or not to consider a new graduate when hiring is always one of the first, and most obvious, questions that must be considered. This is where having conducted a thorough motivational assessment plays an important role, and as you debate bringing on a new graduate versus an experienced associate, make sure to include an analysis based on the factors of short-term and long-term investments of both time and money. Here are a few examples:

  • Initially, a new graduate may cost less in salary and benefits, but factoring in non-income producing time will usually make them far more expensive in the short term than hiring an experienced veterinarian.
  • Experienced veterinarians can hit the ground running and begin producing income almost immediately, but they may come with pre-determined attitudes about practice culture, client service and patient care that may have to be “untrained.”
  • A new graduate is a blank slate and can be molded into the “perfect” fit, but you must be committed to spending the time required to provide them with the necessary guidance and training.

A relatively common scenario is that of a practice owner who has worked 70 hours per week for the last twenty years and whose sole motivation for hiring an associate is a belated desire to spend more time with family. In this case, bringing on a new graduate who requires strong mentorship and coaching would not be a good option, and would most likely lead to frustration due to the extra time needed to provide mentorship. In fact, this is the perfect recipe for disaster, and being placed in this situation is cited by new graduates as their primary reason for changing jobs three to four times within the first four years after graduation. In the end, it winds up being a very expensive and disheartening experience for both parties.

On the flipside, though, is the scenario of a practice owner with a five year exit strategy. He or she fully intends to continue working full-time for several years, but wants to begin a very slow transition. In this case, choosing to hire and mentor a new graduate who expresses potential interest in future ownership may be the perfect match and can result in long-term, highly successful outcomes for both parties.

Whatever your motivation, it is important to recognize it so that you can set attainable goals and ensure that you are hiring someone who has the ability to meet your needs. Simply put, the best way to avoid making an expensive mistake is to have a thorough self-awareness of the long-term and short-term costs and motivations for adding an associate to the team. It is also just as important that whomever you bring on board is aware of these as well, so that there are no secrets and fewer unmet expectations for both parties.

About the authors: Stith Keiser is a former hospital administrator and founder of MyVeterinaryCareer.com, where he has been matching veterinary professionals with practices since 2007. Jessica Goodman Lee is a Certified Veterinary Practice Manager and is the hospital administrator of Angel Veterinary Center in Flower Mound, Texas. She is also a veterinary matchmaking specialist for MyVeterinaryCareer.

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