Haters gonna Hate: Are we really supposed to just sit back and take it?

Surfing the web today I came across an online review directed at a veterinary hospital and a specific veterinarian in a small community. Reading it made me angry but then I realized that I don’t have to remain silent. This review was not about me or about my practice but it quite easily could have been. In fact, it has been about me in the past and like many veterinarians, I too have been victim to negative reviews, online slander and even bullying in my small community. For twenty-seven years, as a vet, I chose to “take the high road” and remained silent. Refusing to respond to the negative and slanderous online trolls, I tried to grow a thick skin and focus on staying positive. Only those closest to me know how much it hurt and how I struggled to not let those comments eat away at my confidence.

In the early years of my career, I struggled with being a professional in a small, close-knit community. As a vet, everyone had an opinion. They loved you or hated you. You were either a hero or a money-grubbing capitalist. Sometimes  the same client that praised you last week was the one calling you a heartless villain this week. While it has gotten easier to accept the nasty comments and behind your back whispers that occur in a small community, I have to admit, sometimes it still feels personal. How can it not? For many of us, our career as veterinarians is a calling, not just a job.

I still recall the experience as a new practice owner, of a truly hateful and slanderous campaign aimed at harming our small business and turning our new community against us. I was invited by a friend to join an evening painting group. I love to draw and paint, but starting a family and buying a small business had left me little free time to pursue my hobbies. I decided it was time to do something for myself and agreed to join my friend. I introduced myself to the group as just “Elaine” and being new to the community, most of the members did not know I was “Dr. Elaine”, a veterinarian.  As people worked on their art and chatted with each other, I remained silent as the talk turned to pets and then a discussion of local veterinarians. Opinions about local veterinarians were bantered about and then my stomach knotted as things suddenly took a nasty turn. I listened in shock, as people discussed the smear campaign of posters that were being placed around the community “exposing” the terrible new veterinarians that had recently started a practice. This was the first I had heard about this slanderous campaign and I was afraid and hurt. With a tremor in my voice, I stood up and re-introduced myself as “Dr. Elaine Klemmensen”. I heard a collective gasp go through the room and sat back down to a room of stunned silence. I continued to paint while trying to figure out how I could get the hell out of there! Thankfully I was saved by my pager buzzing. One of the few times in my career I was happy to get called in for an after-hours emergency! Trolls did exist, back in the days before social media. Spreading their message was a little more difficult and their reach more limited but the effect on an individuals psyche equally devastating. The happy ending to that story was that it helped to build my resiliency and it taught me a valuable lesson about focusing on inner happiness and my own definition of success rather than external validation and popularity.

Everyone is entitled to their opinion and what I am talking about here is not respectful dialogue and open communication aimed at resolving a conflict or misunderstanding. I am talking about mean and spiteful online slander aimed at harming an individual and/or their business. There is a difference and for years I ignored those trolls and refused to respond for two reasons: first, it seemed unprofessional and petty to respond. Second, I did not want to get drawn into the negative drama and chose instead, to protect myself and stay positive. To focus my energies on the people and things that I cared about in life and let the haters hate. It is far too easy in veterinary medicine to dwell on the negative. The negative outcomes, the negative clients, and the negative reviews. To let that one mean, unhappy client or coworker, ruin your day while forgetting about the 20 amazing people that put a smile on your face.

What I realized today, while reading this nasty online review, is that I can finally speak up. I no longer own a veterinary practice, I no longer have anything to lose and maybe it is time for all of us in this profession to end the silence, to stop turning the other cheek and to tell the bullies what we really think.

So to all of you out there who have posted unfair, biased and downright mean reviews about your vet. Rants aimed to hurt or damage their reputation with no desire to understand or resolve your issue. Wake up and take responsibility for your choices. You adopted that pet, you took on the financial responsibility for that animal and it isn’t your vet’s responsibility to subsidize the cost of medical care for you. It isn’t your veterinarian or their team’s fault when it is injured or ill.  As hard as we try, as skilled as we may be, we cannot save every patient, we cannot foresee every complication and while we are doing our best, at the end of the day we are only human. Stop making your vet feel guilty if they want to earn a fair salary for the 60+ hours a week they work and for heaven’s sake stop telling them they’re “only in it for the money”. Frankly, this phrase is getting pretty old for all of us. Show a little creativity and come up with something new already. Recognize if you choose a lower priced veterinarian who does not offer 24 hour emergency care, you made this choice. When your pet is ill on Christmas Day and your regular vet won’t answer their phone, is it fair to expect the other veterinarian to miss Christmas morning with their kids? Oh, and one more thing, if you are going to slander us or our team online at least have the balls to sign your real name. To Professor Dante, DW,  Mountain Mitch and all the others hiding behind your slick pseudonyms, you’re not fooling anyone. We know who you are and all you have succeeded in doing is losing our respect. If you have a problem with our service or care, just talk to us. Face to face. Like a grownup. 

Sorry if that sounds unprofessional folks but maybe it is time to stand up for ourselves and tell it like it is. When my son was in grade 5, he was the target of some schoolyard bullying. We talked about it and encouraged him to not react, to pretend it didn’t bother him, essentially to turn the other cheek. True to his nature, he listened, digested this information and then decided to handle it his way. This involved tossing the said bully across the room and ending up in the principles office. We were called into the school to discuss our son’s “anger management issues” and true to our non-confrontational nature, we listened and did not say what was on our minds, something I have always regretted.  Where are the other kids’ parents? Is it okay to constantly taunt someone with mental abuse until they snap? Thankfully his teacher gave our son the support we did not when several weeks later, he asked him how things were going. Our lad replied that things were much better for him after he threw the kid across the room.  The teacher just looked at him meaningfully and said: “Sometimes you just gotta do, what you gotta do”. 

Maybe it is time to stand up and do what we gotta do. What do you think?

It’s complicated…

During our time in Botswana we have sterilized 413 dogs and cats, vaccinated 441 animals, preformed 3 limb amputations, several minor surgeries and one blood transfusion over a period of 25 working days. While these numbers look good on paper, and  of course it feels good to do something rather than nothing (For the love of dog), it still feels like a drop in the ocean, so overwhelming is the need. Despite this, I suspect some of you might also be asking yourself the obvious question:  “why travel abroad to provide free veterinary care when there are plenty of animals in need in your own , backyard?” My response?  It’s complicated.

Although many of you know me as a veterinary practice owner and hospital manager, I was not always “the boss” and during my years in the profession I have had the opportunity to work as both an associate veterinarian (employed vet) and a locum veterinarian (relief vet). I have experienced different management styles and a variety of working conditions, from a militant, fear based approach to controlling employees, to the extreme hands off approach where the “monkeys run the circus”. I have worked with vets who will never say no and whose sense of self worth is dangerously linked to the need to be loved by every client. I have watched teams suffer low pay and burnout because the practice owner gave away services leaving them unable to compensate the team fairly and invest in the practice infrastructure. And as a young veterinarian, I have considered leaving the profession due to abuse and a lack of mentorship and support.

We purchased our own practice partially out of need (a baby was arriving in a month and we needed an income) but also out of a desire to provide a stable and positive workplace for our staff.  The reality is, a veterinary practice is a small business. It needs to be profitable, your team deserves competitive salaries, benefits, to feel valued and be treated with respect. This does not happen on its own.  It takes effort and has an associated cost.  Profitability in a veterinary practice allows a practice owner to take care of their team as well as maintain software, invest in new equipment and improve the quality of care your pet receives. Unfortunately, some in our profession and the public at large, think the word “profit” somehow makes us a less noble profession. “Don’t you do it for the love of the animals? Shame on you that you want to make a good living too!” What they fail to see is the link between the profitability of a veterinary practice and the level of job satisfaction and happiness of the employees working in that practice.

Over the years we have often discussed the 80:20 rule with our team, the law of the vital few or as it is properly termed, the Pareto principle. Named after an Italian economist, Vilfredo Pareto, who who observed that 80% of income in Italy was received by 20% of the Italian population, this principle can be applied in a wide range of situations from management practices to lifestyle choices. At its core, the Pareto principles states that most of the results in any situation are determined by a small number of causes. 80% of the result come from 20% of the causes. Or, for example, 80% of your profits come from 20% of your clients or at home you spend 80% of your time in just 20% of the your rooms or despite having 35 apps on your smart phone, you use 20% of them, 80% of the time.   I love this principle and it’s wide reaching applications but for the point of this article, lets focus on the Pareto principle’s as it applies to client complaints in veterinary practice. Although it may not feel like it some days, the truth is, a small number of your clients are unhappy, complain and make your life as a vet unrewarding and stressful.  The majority of clients are great to deal with, appreciative and are the reason we love our jobs as veterinarians.  As long as you recognize the 80:20 rule, it’s all good.  The problem develops when you start to believe the comments from the 20% and base your management decisions on the complaints of this vocal minority.  For some, your fees will never be low enough, your clinic never clean enough, your hours never accommodating enough and your caring and compassion never altruistic enough.

I have been told “you don’t care, you’re only in it for the money” more times than I care to recall and while I understand the emotions behind this response, it is the most unoriginal way to berate your vet.  Trust me, if we were just in it for the money, we would not be veterinarians.  So the question still remains, how do you manage a successful and profitable practice while still giving back to the community?  How do you choose which clients deserve a discount or charity and which do not? Just because a veterinary practice is profitable, does not mean they do not give back to their clients and community. Often the discounts, free exams, free treatments and rehoming of pets and donations to local charities is not advertised and goes unnoticed by the public.  In fact, profitable practices are often able to give far more.

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Veterinarians often believe they need to be all things to all pet owners.  Inconsistency and trying to please everyone is a dangerous path, especially when you recall that 20% of people will be unhappy with your service regardless of your best efforts.  Human nature is interesting and I have worked in practices where fees were waived for clients who could not afford veterinary care and this “free care” now becomes the expectation on future visits. The challenge is to find a way to help meet the patients needs, within the owner’s budget rather than just giving a handout.  For the health of our profession, we need to educate people that pet ownership is not your right, but a privilege. A privilege that comes with a cost. Handouts can quickly become a future expectation and I have more than once, witnessed a client once grateful for a discounted or free service quickly turn nasty once the handout was discontinued.  Allowing this situation to develop in your veterinary hospital affects the culture of your practice and things can quickly spiral out of your control, resulting in a team suffering from burnout and compassion fatigue fuelled by negativity, demanding clients and a lack of profits.

The idea of giving a hand up instead of a hand out can also be applied to volunteering with a project abroad. I have spent time pondering this question: by providing free veterinary care in a developing country are we actually helping or are we devaluing the service of local veterinarians and the sustainability of the project? Are we teaching the local people that we will take care of them for free and in doing so, taking work away from a local veterinarian?  It is a question I struggle with but the reality is, in many of the countries we visit, the veterinary education and training is vastly different than a veterinary education in countries like North America, the UK, Europe, Australia and New Zealand. Veterinarians in many countries are either not qualified or not interested in spay and neuter programs and the yet in these areas the need for these programs is great.

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Outreach clinic in Shakawe Botswana for MAWS

For many the world is black and white and the answers to these questions are obvious.  How simple things would be if this were true for myself. Instead, I see the world in shifting shades of grey and I find the answers are often elusive. All I can do is try to leave my judgement at home, ask questions and hopefully find my own answers in the many shades of grey.

The Story of Frank and Zelda

The early years of running our own veterinary hospital were hard. We were open 6 days a week, on call 7 days a week and raising two young children with no family close by for support. I know this sounds like one of those stories you tell your kids… “you think you have it tough, well let me tell you about tough! Ever try to repair a smashed pelvis and fractured femur with a drooling baby on your back and another one screaming in a playpen next door?” I’m not complaining, it’s just the facts of what our early years as practice owners were like. It was the life we chose and after every exhausting day we looked at each other and agreed it sure beat being back in the dysfunctional partnership we had escaped. In those early years of raising a practice and raising a family, one of the highlights of every night was bedtime. I know, all you parents out there can relate…please, please just go to sleep, we need some adult time. No, the highlight wasn’t getting the kids to sleep, (although this was sweet too), the highlight of our day was story time.  Clean and warm from their bath and cuddled in their jammies we would take turns laying down on their little beds and reading stories. Often, for two exhausted vets, this turned into the kids poking us and saying mommy/daddy finish the story, as we found we were reading ourselves into slumber. I recall Dr. Suess books being especially effective at putting us soundly to sleep.

A little book called “Pizza for Breakfast”, was one of our favorite stories from this period. I do not recall how it ended up in our home, but it was a lovely little fable about Frank and Zelda, two portly restauranteurs who ran a small mom and pop pizza shop. They worked hard making their delicious pizza but were always wishing for more…more customers, a bigger restaurant, etc. After each wish, a “little man” would show up at the restaurant and their wish would be granted. Unfortunately, as each of their desires came true, a set of new problems appeared and they would end up lamenting to each other…”Frank/Zelda we need a plan”.

Our journey as veterinarians was not unlike Frank and Zelda’s (minus the magic little man to grant us our wishes, we just had hard work and staying power on our side) and over the years on those particularly difficult, stressful or truly draining days one of us would catch the other’s eye and say “Frank/Zelda we need a plan”.

How do you sell a veterinary practice? Well, obviously you need a plan and be prepared that plan is going to take some time to execute. Our goal was to get out before we were a couple of washed up, cranky shells of our former selves but still had enough energy to start a new chapter. So how do you sell a multi doctor veterinary practice without going corporate? These days it ain’t easy but we have a few tips for those of you in the same situation.

  1. Stop being a dick and start mentoring your young associates. I am not kidding about this, treat your entire team the way you would want to be treated if you were in their position. Respect, responsibility and appreciation for what they do for you goes along way with all your employees. Model the leadership you want to instil in the new owner and be patient. If you deal with your employees with honesty, transparency and respect you are setting the foundation for a respectful ownership transition.
  2. Evaluate your motives for selling and make sure your are truly ready to let go of the reins and give up control. This was a big one for me. Are you mentally ready to move on and let someone else take control of your practice? Only you can answer this question but you better spend some time reflecting on it and make sure you will be able to step aside when the time comes.
  3.  Have a professional evaluation long before you decide to sell. Address any management problems and get the place in tip top shape prior to looking getting serious about a sale.
  4. Recognize it is going to get stressful and set up expectations at the beginning of your negotiations. We have a great relationship with the associate who purchased our practice but even so, we all agreed that what was most important, to the three of us, was to remain friends. Then, when things get tense, and they will, be ready to step back, put yourself in the buyer’s shoes and be reasonable. Do you really want to sell? You better be willing to give a little and not always get your way.
  5. Let go of your ego, the stories of how much you sacrificed to build your practice and say goodbye to your ridiculous expectations of what your practice is worth. At the end of the day, it is worth what someone will pay for it. Get an evaluation, negotiate for a fair price but again, don’t be a dick. That will just lose you a sale and potentially a valued friendship.
  6. Don’t look back. When the documents are signed and you hand over the keys to the kingdom just pat yourself on the back and be happy. When the dust settles, you will realize you’ve given yourself a gift, the freedom to begin a new chapter and the chance to turn to each other and say “Frank/Zelda we need a plan”.