Is an answer to staffing shortages right under our noses?

Long-time practice owner says veterinary assistants are an underused resource

Published: June 17, 2024
By Kate Lindley

Photo courtesy of Dr. Kate Lindley
Practice owner Dr. Kate Lindley says hiring more veterinary assistants and training them well is good for clinics and the community.

Few would deny that the veterinary labor market is tight right now. Many hospitals desperately need more practitioners and veterinary technicians. The resulting heavier workloads can take a toll on individuals' mental health, causing compassion fatigue and burnout and leading more skilled people to leave the profession.

There have been many suggestions about how to solve the problem but little agreement. Around a dozen new veterinary schools are in the pipeline or opening soon based on the premise that more veterinarians are what's needed. There are also controversial moves in some states to establish a midlevel position similar to a nurse practitioner or physician assistant in human medicine. Each of these measures will take years to come to fruition. Meanwhile, the number of pet parents is growing, and clinic phones are ringing off the hook.

I believe a quicker way to ease pressure on veterinary teams is available in every practice: adding and elevating veterinary assistants by utilizing them more fully in the clinic and improving their education.

I've owned my practice in Washington state for 40 years. I've had wonderful associate doctors, but they've all retired, the last in January. Yet, the business is making more money than ever. I typically send out 75 to 100 "welcome, new client" cards monthly, and we continue to grow. How is this possible when I can't find a new veterinarian or more technicians to employ?

This is how I did it: I hired four new enthusiastic young people as veterinary assistants when the Covid-19 pandemic boosted practice demand. Then, I created a simple plan for building their skills. I made a poster listing all the tasks assistants are allowed to do in my state. My veterinary technicians took care of the training and applied stickers to the poster as my new helpers mastered each skill. My techs were happy to have backup and to be in charge of teaching what they needed help doing. The assistants good-naturedly competed with each other to learn as much as they could. My assistants blossomed, and suddenly, we had oil on the gears of the practice day.

I understand concerns about scope creep and that some technicians are worried assistants will encroach on their duties. I found the opposite. Technicians were free to concentrate on the skilled tasks for which they are trained, while assistants filled in the gaps.

In Washington state, assistants can obtain blood samples, administer fluids, monitor vitals during anesthesia, give some injections, prep patients for surgery and perform many other functions. That allows technicians to concentrate on tasks that include inducing anesthesia under supervision, performing dental procedures, handling controlled drugs, processing laboratory samples and other duties they're legally allowed to carry out. (Titles, scope of practice and education requirements for veterinary team members vary by state.)

Elevating veterinary assistants from mere "kennel help" can reduce stress on technicians as they delegate some jobs to the assistants they themselves trained and in whom they feel confident. Veterinarians, meanwhile, can concentrate on diagnosing, prescribing, providing a prognosis and performing surgery, as the technicians have more time to help them directly. It is a win-win for everyone.

Fully utilizing assistants in practice, however, isn't enough. We need to improve assistant education so graduates are prepared for the full scope of possible duties. Recently, I attended an open house for a veterinary assistant program offered at a nearby high school to introduce myself. I was dismayed by the inadequate resources and how few practical skills were taught in the two-year course. This program has existed for 20 years, yet I have had few graduates apply at my practice. I wonder if students just become bored and move on to other fields.

Currently in the U.S., there are many more veterinary assistant programs than there are technician schools. A small number — around 60 — are approved by the National Association of Veterinary Technicians in America. But in general, most assistant programs have no oversight or regulation. Meanwhile, schools for technicians are accredited by the American Veterinary Medical Association.

Ranging from six months to two years, assistant programs are taught online and at high schools, community colleges and technical schools. Most programs, including those that are NAVTA-approved, have a similar curriculum, consisting of medical terminology, animal anatomy, restraint, hygiene, front-office skills and so forth. While this is useful information, most programs fall short on teaching practical skills. Instead, they rely on short internships for any hands-on training.

Unfortunately, many students who complete an assistant program do not know enough to be useful in a busy practice. Hence, they do what they know how to do, and that is usually cleaning and feeding. Typically, newly minted assistants are excited about veterinary medicine and eager to learn, and they look up to the more experienced technicians. This attitude can be nurtured or crushed.

There are a few programs that are doing things right. The National Workforce Career Association has a Veterinary Assistant Certification program. They provide a study guide and testing of competency in general front-office duties, clinical nursing care and animal management procedures.

The Texas Veterinary Medical Association has a certification program with online training and a policy and guidelines manual. They require a minimum of 300 hours of training in a clinic with a skills check-off list. Also, there are several good textbooks available. My technicians teach assistants using Teresa Sonsthagen's Tasks for the Veterinary Assistant.

I don't know of any studies that track assistant turnover, but in my experience, many assistants do not remain in veterinary medicine long-term. Some continue schooling and go on to become technicians or even veterinarians, but many change professions due to low pay and feeling unappreciated and burned out. Traditionally, their tasks are repetitive, dirty, isolated and unfulfilling. Yes, someone needs to feed and clean, but those jobs can be rotated and interspersed with involvement in helping process interesting cases.

The average annual pay for veterinary assistants was $36,440 per year ($17.52 per hour) in 2023, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The bureau projected annual job openings at about 26,800, with a "faster than average" growth rate of 20% over 10 years. 

The American Animal Hospital Association acknowledged the challenges and opportunities for assistants in its 2023 guidelines on technician utilization. "It is important to recognize that the title of assistant feels inadequate for a large percentage of non-credentialed individuals with years of experience," the guidelines state. They recommend that the "superb skills and assets" of many assistants be incorporated where allowed by law into utilization and workflow models.

There are additional perks to hiring more assistants. It's a great way to provide important job skills to youth who may have limited resources for further education.

Across the profession, we need to recognize the key role assistants play in practices and offer them schooling that includes more practical skills. In addition, formalizing on-the-job training with technicians benefits the entire team because when the workload is shared, at least everyone gets a lunch!

Dr. Kate Lindley worked as veterinary kennel help in high school, received a bachelor's degree in bacteriology from the University of Idaho and a master's in teaching from the University of Washington. She taught veterinary assistants and then veterinary technicians from 1975 to 1981 before graduating with a DVM from Washington State University College of Veterinary Medicine in 1985. She raised three children as a single mom and has owned a small animal practice in the Puget Sound region for 40 years. She has written several chapters in a textbook for veterinary technicians and authored This Is the Abyssinian Cat. She is also a fiction writer and an artist.

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