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Veterinarian Technician October 2007 (Vol 28, No 10) Focus: Practice Management

On the Cover: A Talk with Katherine Dobbs, RVT, CVPM

by Liz Donovan

    For this month's practice management issue, we talked to our very own Management Matters columnist, Katherine Dobbs, RVT, CVPM. For 10 years, Katherine worked at Gulf Coast Veterinary Specialists in Houston, Texas, first as a client services technician and later as the director of client services. Now, as manager of Fox Valley Animal Referral Center in Appleton, Wisconsin — the flagship hospital of Horizon Veterinary Services, Inc. — Katherine oversees more than 80 staff members in four specialty departments and a full-time emergency service. Although each division has its own dynamics and needs, Katherine sees one similarity — the importance of an optimal client experience. "Veterinary medicine is all about the people and how well you can connect with them," says Katherine. "If a person doesn't trust you, you won't be given a chance to treat their pet."

    In June 2006, Katherine launched the Veterinary Emergency and Specialty Practice Association (VESPA), an organization that brings together managers and employees of emergency and specialty practices. One of the goals of VESPA is to create networking opportunities for professionals in management.

    Katherine shares her experiences in client services and her plans for the future and discusses how she works every day to make each client count.

    While you were in school studying veterinary technology, did you envision yourself in client services?

    Gosh, no! While I was in school, I worked at a small one-veterinarian practice, and I did pretty much everything there — from answering phones to greeting clients to working with the animals. After graduation, I worked for a short time at a surgical and research training center, but I missed small animal medicine. So, about 4 years after becoming registered, I took a position at Gulf Coast Veterinary Specialists as a client services technician — I was the first registered technician in that position! I loved working with clients and using my knowledge to help them understand their pet's condition.

    Years later, when I told my first veterinarian employer that I was working in client services, she said, "That doesn't surprise me because you were the best front person I ever had." I was offended at first because I was so proud of my technical skills. It took a few months before I realized that she was paying me a compliment — I had a knack for connecting with clients and making their clinic visit a positive experience. Realizing that I had this ability was an epiphany for me. I respect the human-animal bond, and it is satisfying to be able to help families bond with their pets. Many people say they go into veterinary medicine because they love animals. That is what got me here, but my passion has changed over the years. It has been the people — both the clients and my coworkers — who have sustained me in this profession.

    Is there anything that you disliked about working in client services?

    I loved client services, but the internal medicine division was very difficult for me because I saw many animals with terminal illnesses. When the time came to euthanize a sick pet, it was hard to lose the animal, but it was even harder to lose the family that I had come to know so well — that really just broke my heart.

    One case that I worked on for many years was particularly difficult. A dog named Sugar had immune-mediated thrombocytopenia. Sugar's owner and I spoke every week. When we lost Sugar to pancreatitis, the owner and I hugged each other and cried, and I told her, "I'm going to miss you so much." Those situations were heartbreaking, and that's why I accepted the opportunity to move into a new position.

    How did you move from client services to management?

    I started by helping with various management duties while still working in client services. First, I performed smaller tasks, like employee scheduling, and then moved up to more complex tasks, such as interviewing and hiring staff. Eventually, I was made senior manager of the client services staff. When the front office supervisor left the practice, I took a full-time management position to oversee the client services staff and the receptionists. I loved the new role because it allowed me to continue to stay connected with clients.

    The compassion I felt toward our clients transitioned into a desire to make the work meaningful to the staff. This made me realize that I should pursue a career in management. When I worked full time while attending tech school, I never would have imagined that a management career would be in my future. Now, I can think of nothing more fulfilling.

    In September 2006, I became a certified veterinary practice manager (CVPM) through the Veterinary Hospital Managers Association, Inc. The certification helped to validate my previous experience, but it really is trial by fire when you enter management! I still learn something new every day.

    How does your new position differ from your position at Gulf Coast?

    What I really like about my current position is that I have the opportunity to make changes that benefit the entire practice. At Gulf Coast, I wasn't an overall hospital administrator; therefore, I could only make suggestions for my department. I now help develop and write protocols for the entire hospital. Although the executive director and the technical director of Horizon Veterinary Services both have high-level management experience, I'm able to offer my own hands-on perspective, and they're very open to listening to and implementing my ideas. Because I came from a different facility, we are able to share our experiences about what has and hasn't worked so that we can build a strong management system.

    What challenges do you face in your current role?

    The main challenge is keeping my eye on the big picture. I have to make sure that we're providing excellent client service across all four departments and the 24/7 emergency service. To do this, I need to know the dynamics of the different departments — internal medicine, surgery, ophthalmology, dermatology, and the emergency service. Plus, we offer our referring community routine visits from a board-certified radiologist. Each department has different needs, but they all have to work together so the client has an overall good experience. To make the entire hospital run smoothly, I really have to take everything into consideration — the staff's viewpoints and personalities and the dynamics of the individual department.

    How do you keep the different services running smoothly?

    It can be a challenge! I rely a lot on my middle managers. There is a supervisor for the technicians, one for the front office staff, and an office manager who helps with the administrative work. Horizon also has a controller who handles payroll and an assistant who manages our benefits. I currently manage the client services staff as I work to implement middle management in that area, but I spend most of my time making sure that everything gets done and that all aspects of the clinic run smoothly.

    What is your main focus as hospital manager?

    At the end of the day, my main concern is that the client has the best experience possible. I ask myself, "If I walked into a facility with my pet, how would I want to be treated and what kind of experience would I want to have?" Then, I apply that to each client who comes through the door. The difficulty is that there are two client bases to manage in specialty practice — the pet owner and the referring veterinarian. Each is equally important. And, keeping your staff happy is just as important as keeping your clients happy. It's a vicious cycle — if the clients aren't satisfied, situations may occur that make the staff unhappy and vice versa.

    What are your plans for the future?

    For the past year, I've really been interested in consulting so that I'm able to help other veterinary practice managers with the challenges they face. It seems to be a natural transition. This winter, I will move into a management consulting position with Horizon. I'll be responsible for assisting managers in all of Horizon's practices and the practices for which Horizon provides consulting services.

    I also plan to continue writing and lecturing. I want to demonstrate to technicians who are looking at different career options that management is a challenging, fulfilling choice. For managers who are already dealing with the issues of operating any or all departments of a hospital, I want to share what I have learned and give them the viewpoint of someone who has been down the same road.

    Are there advantages to having worked as a technician before pursuing a management position?

    I think that a background in veterinary medicine gives a manager a better idea of how a veterinary clinic operates. In my experience, managers who have previously worked in the veterinary field have a better appreciation of the profession. If the manager has experience working in the field, he or she can relate more to each job in the clinic and be better able to implement policies and procedures that are both practical and effective. Technical knowledge also comes in handy from a client service perspective because the manager is able to understand what is happening to a pet, and in turn, is able to better explain the treatment to the client. But, regardless of your background, you should remember that it's important to keep learning and to attend continuing education seminars in veterinary medicine and general business so that you are knowledgeable in both areas of the job.

    What advice would you like to offer to technicians?

    Do not allow yourself to stagnate. Always find new challenges that will keep you in the veterinary profession. Consider pursuing a career in practice management. Also, hold yourself accountable for your actions and know that only you can change your future and that of the profession.

    Check out Katherine's Vital Statistics and Katherine's Vision Comes to Light .

    NEXT: Picture This! "Muppet Madness"
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