VetScript Editor's pick: December 2019 - Down South

In this month's 'Out there vetting' series, Bette Flagler talks to Louise Ingram and Sandy MacGillivray at Otautau Vets.

What’s the history of the clinic?

Louise: The Western Southland Vet Club owns the building and we are a contract practice to the club, but we are not a club practice. Two of the veterinarians, Darryl Marshall and John Hicks, formed a partnership in 1990, and that’s when the model that exists now was started.

In 2001 John, Giles Gill and Sid Taylor formed Otautau Vets Limited. Jen Gordon and I both came from the UK in 2001 and started as new graduates. I bought out John in 2006, and Jen bought out Sid in 2009. Giles retired in 2014.

The Western Southland Vet Club started in 1971. They worked from another space in town before building a clinic here. The building had a major extension in 2000 and another in 2013. All of the extensions reflect the changing nature of the business and staffing needs.

How did you end up here?

Louise: Jen and I qualified in the middle of the foot and mouth outbreak in the UK and there were very few cattle jobs and few large animal jobs for new graduates. This job was advertised in a veterinary journal in the UK and it sounded like an adventure. After a few years Jen went back to the UK for a year and locummed and decided that this was where she wanted to be and came back.

What is your succession plan?

Louise: Jen and I are the majority shareholders, and Sandy MacGillivray, Teressa Skevington, Julia Nuttall and Ruby Ryan have smaller shareholdings. Sandy is our Practice Manager and the others are veterinarians who have been with us for a long time. We offer the shareholding to encourage people to stay and take a more active role in the business and, we hope, grow that active role for when Jen and I want to retire.

What non-veterinary staff do you have?

Louise: We have three veterinary nurses, one of whom is a qualified technician. We have four rural technicians (three are qualified) for the teat-sealing season; two reception staff; an accountancy/payroll manager; and a cleaner.

You’re an all-female team. How did that happen?

Louise: It’s just how it’s worked out. We’ve had men in the past and they’ve been great. It’s definitely not intentional, it just reflects who applies for the jobs.

What is the practice breakdown?

Louise: About 60% of our work is dairy, but more at certain times of the year. The small animal side takes up 20% of our time and is growing rapidly – it’s the area of biggest growth. The rest is sheep and beef cattle – we have quite a few clients, but they don’t take as much of our time.

It’s a big practice with a lot of staff. How do you keep it running smoothly?

Louise: One thing that may be a bit different – but is how many practices are moving – is that more than half of us are part-time. Although there are a lot of people, they aren’t necessarily here at any one time, so communication is challenging and extra-important.

Sandy: Having processes in place for communication is one of the most important things that you can have. You need for any one of the team to be able to come in and pick up to do the job where someone else has left off. It’s about documentation of case histories and treatment, but it’s also being able to use the tools you have to see, at any given time, what is going on. All the staff need to be able to communicate with any of the clients who ring up and have a question about what is going on, even for simple things. For example, our computer system will allow us to put notes on that say “so and so will be picking up Johnny at 3pm today”, so everyone knows what is going on with Johnny and we can be organised. Running a place like this isn’t about micromanaging, it’s about having an overview of everything that is going on so that you can provide support where you need to and celebrate the good things that happen and the successes. I don’t think you should only focus on the things you need to fix.

What’s the management structure?

Louise: Sandy, Jen and I are the management team. Before Ruby went on maternity leave, she was taking on some of the management, and she will return to that when she comes back.

I think most practices our size would have a manager. If there’s not a separate manager then one of the owners would be doing more of the management and less clinical work. Jen and I both want to be veterinarians. We want to remain on the farm and in the clinic, so we do need a practice manager. We’re not trained to manage a business. Being in management and also doing clinical practice is a strength and a challenge. It means that if you’re managing a team of people you’re also a member of that team. You know what everyone is facing and dealing with, but you’re also the boss.

Sandy: That can be hard, but I think it’s important to always do your best to present yourself in the way you want people to react with you.

Sandy, how do the skills you have from being a social worker and a psychiatric nurse help you here?

Sandy: From the wellbeing side, there are two aspects. One, I like to think that my door is always open and people can come in if they have problems. There are a number of times when someone will talk to me about things that are completely non-work related. I don’t fix their problems; I don’t do anything but listen. Often Jen and Louise don’t know about those conversations because they are very personal to the individual.

Second, you have to be careful that you yourself don’t get burnt out. One of the things I learned early on in acute psychiatric nursing is that you need to have trust in the rest of your team. When you walk out the door, you need to know that the rest of the team will look after and do what needs to be done for the patient. It’s the same here. Our team needs to know that they have left their information and documentation for the next person to pick up.

You cannot take everything home; you have to offload what you can’t change.

How do you manage after-hours?

Louise: After-hours is a separate component of the salary, so people can opt in or out and know what effect that will have on their salary. We have flexibility in place; it started off to accommodate working mothers, but it’s flexi-time and applies to everyone.

Why do you choose to be BESTPRACTICE-accredited?

Louise: Although the audits are stressful, it’s good to have an outsider come in; it makes you keep doing what you say you’ll do, and it makes you keep your protocols up to date. It makes you walk the talk – you don’t just have a manual that sits and gathers dust. It’s real and someone is coming in every two years to make sure it is real. When we have decisions to make about the building and equipment, there are standards that are prescribed in the BESTPRACTICE manual. That helps when you need to make decisions.

Sandy: The work that went in to creating the manual means that it’s a resource that is available for the staff. I feel that the standards set by BESTPRACTICE are the minimum that practices should aim for.

What’s the vibe of the practice?

Sandy: The teamwork aspect is really important, but everyone doesn’t get along with everyone all the time.

Louise: Exactly, it’s like a family! When something needs to be done, or if there’s an emergency, personal differences are put aside. Everyone has each other’s backs. We also have our clients’ backs. If one of our clients is going through a rough patch, we are all there for them. We tend to know about things because we are part of the community. Sometimes it’s not appropriate for us to do something, but we are aware of struggles. We might drop off a package of biscuits or find a reason to stop by or give them a ring; we might ask after a cow and then ask, “And how are you?”. That kind of care also comes back from the clients. They may ring and say, “The veterinarian had a rough call today; you make sure you look after her”.

What are your thoughts on the future of the profession?

Louise: The current model of farm animal practices making the majority of their income from sales is not sustainable. There needs to be a change in how people view paying for veterinary services and time, but there also needs to be a change in how veterinarians view charging for their time because we’re not, as a profession, good at doing that. It’s harder to retain veterinary staff, so we need to improve their salary packages and that costs more for business. How that is paid for, I’m not sure. Farmers are under pressure to raise their game in many ways. Most of it is very positive, but the consumer has to understand that the farmer still has to make an income while meeting these higher requirements. So the net result is that produce will cost more. I can’t see any way around that, and I think we are right to ask for higher welfare standards and better food quality. I think it’s a really good thing, but people have to understand that it costs more to do that. Farming is facing a lot of changes, and that means that we are facing a lot of changes and we’ll have to find our way through it.

Sandy: I think the veterinary profession will be even more necessary on farms as we run out of options on how to manage things.

What is it like to live here?

Louise: It’s hard when you’re a new graduate or a new person because it is a small community and it takes a while to find your feet, but that is true of anywhere. Otautau is multicultural. There are people from all over the world. Some of that is because of the dairy industry, and some is because people from overseas want to live different lifestyles in a place with a lower population density where you can buy a house for peanuts and have a beautiful view. It can be hard for a young, single woman coming into a small rural community, but that is changing here because it is getting more international. But Southland is a great place! Come work here!