Veterinary Health Workers: The Unsung Heroes of the Pandemic

The District Vet

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Almost eighteen months ago, as the world suddenly came to a halt, the way we conduct business dramatically changed. Veterinary medicine was faced with its most significant challenge in a generation. While people could do without movies, put off vacations, order take out instead of going to a restaurant, healthcare was not taking a break. Pets will always need medical care. And during the shutdowns and stay at home orders, people turned to their pets, or welcomed new ones into their circle for companionship. The veterinary profession became, and remains, overwhelmed. Having endured these times, it is vital that the profession look back to see how we came to be at this present juncture.

As the closure of businesses was mandated by the District government, veterinary practices were in limbo as they were not on the list of essential services. This was clarified quickly, but it set up initial uncertainty and set the tone for the first few months. Mandates and guidelines were being adjusted frequently, and in the experience of District Vet, we made a policy to not change policy more than once per day. Planning staffing levels was difficult due to staff themselves, government edicts, and questions over the demand for services.

Veterinary practices cannot telework, they are hands-on. A few of our employees were concerned about being in an office with others and took a leave of absence. Recruiting new staff during the first six months of the crisis was nearly impossible.

The last weeks of March and first half of April were moderately slower than usual, but that soon changed. By the end of April, the appointment schedule was full, booking out several weeks, and growing. Transit slowed, making it more difficult for staff to arrive in the mornings. To accommodate this, Saturday opening was pushed back an hour, losing appointments from the schedule. When curbside was initiated, client interaction decreased and seeing appointments efficiently dropped, too. After a few weeks of the new protocol, the staff was able adjust, finding a new groove. Then the puppies arrived.

If the number of clients with pets had remained steady, District Vet and the rest of the profession would have been able to adjust to the new normal. But as is well known, many people saw this as the perfect time to welcome a new furred family member. Puppies and kittens are the spice of life, but they require a number of veterinary visits within their first seven months of life. In addition to puppies and kittens, animal shelters were emptied of pets, adding to new patients. With excess time at home, existing pet parents sought veterinary visits for delayed care.

And now we have the perfect storm: decreased staff, decreased efficiency, incredible demand.

The staff and doctors at District Vet did not take time off for months. Many worked overtime and covered extra shifts. The number of drop off appointments was increased. Minor issues were transferred to technician visits. And the pets still came. Then the emergency hospitals would frequently refuse to accept more patients. (This is an on-going problem.)

Although working day and night, eventually it came to the point where District Vet too, had to focus on core existing patients, and stop accepting new clients. It was one of the most difficult decisions in the life of the business. Veterinary medicine is a compassionate, helping profession, and it is difficult to say no. But there was no choice.

As the months progressed, and the waitlist grew, new staff were added, as were several doctors. Clients adjusted to the protocols and slowly the backlog of appointments was starting to be met. With the advent of an effective vaccine and a greater understanding of the health situation, District Vet opened its doors to clients once again in mid-July. Slowly new clients were being seen, while assuring existing clients could still be accommodated. Beginning in August the Eastern Market office will have an exclusive prompt-care doctor for existing clients. She will be seeing patients from 2:00 p.m. until 10:00 p.m., Monday through Thursday. This is part of the commitment to provide the best care for clients. As time progresses the plan is to expand the service to the entire community six days per week.

The past eighteen months have challenged the veterinary profession like never before. The grit, compassion, and determination of the veterinary workforce cannot be understated. Veterinary medicine is a people business, and I am proud to say that District Vet has the best people. It is because of them that we were able to provide care every day, without closure, during this crisis. And it is because of them that we remain open and welcoming to the pets of the city. We experienced a crisis, and the staff of District Vet rallied to meet it head on. I could not be more proud.

Dan Teich, DVM is Medical Director at District Veterinary Hospital Eastern Market.