Workforce optimization has never been more important in Veterinary medicine. Over the past two decades, as demand for veterinary care has exploded, the supply of newly-minted DVMs has hardly grown at all. Since 1978, just five new veterinary colleges have opened their doors, bringing the number of active programs in the US to a scant 33. Class sizes aren’t getting meaningfully bigger either. The result, as any owner or operator of a veterinary practice can tell you, is an acute shortage of labor, a shortage which threatens the wellbeing of practices and patients. A different sort of help is needed, because the Great Veterinary Labor Drought is (probably) not going to get meaningfully better anytime soon.

The ‘Forever Open’ headcount

According to the AVMA, the unemployment rate within the industry is hovering just under 1%. As of this writing, there are 9,954 open positions for ‘Veterinary Technician’ on the job search site Indeed, and 8,456 veterinarian vacancies. That’s across approximately 29,000 veterinary practices in the United States. If every single tech opening was posted there (they’re aren’t), the average veterinary practice is short by approximately one third of a technician, and one third of a DVM. And that’s a VERY conservative estimate, since it’s looking at just a single job board.

Most of the customers I’ve personally spoken with over the past year ask if I know a DVM, technician etc. that’s looking for a new start, an ask they probably make of every vendor that they meet. With the demand for veterinary care continuing to relentlessly increase at near double digits while the available workforce remains frustratingly supply-constrained, something’s got to give.

Jetpacks, flying cars, and inventory robots

This is 2021, so shouldn’t automation play a role in navigating this challenge? While many practices are looking for more staff, every practice has staff hours that are consumed by low-value tasks; tedious work that almost no one really wants to do, but that almost everyone just accepts as necessary parts of working at a veterinary practice. These are not the activities that lead children to dream of being a veterinarian someday or that inspire an exhausted technician to climb out of bed in the morning. These are the parts of the job that have to be gotten through and put up with so that you get to do the good stuff.

Good news! The robots are here to help. Well, they’re here to help with inventory at least, which is one of the most mismatched activities you can hand to a technician that you originally hired and continues to help care for your patients. Inventory is a critical component of the veterinary business, and managing it simply on a clipboard, or in your PIMS, without an expert devoting 100% of their time to it, creates inefficiencies and waste.  Let’s consider a two-doctor practice with ten overall employees that grosses $1MM USD, and a total of 20,000 hours worked during the year. Each employee must generate $50 in revenue per hour (on average) to keep the boat afloat. But that’s just an average! Broadly speaking, there are three categories of time spent by employees of the practice:

  • Client-facing time: office consultations, call backs after test results, follow up texts and emails, as well as initial intake and discharge (usually handled by the CSR). This is time where the staff is directly engaging with the paying customer, which is important for obvious reasons.
  • Patient-facing time, including office calls, surgeries, treatment of hospitalized pets, etc. These are the principal value-generating activities within the hospital.
  • Administrative time, such as financial record keeping, interviewing new employees, cleaning and maintenance. This is time that the paying customer has no direct interest in, and which revenue is not directly generated from. And you guessed it: inventory and controlled substance tasks, such as cycle counting, logging, ordering, and re-stocking generally fall within this category.

The first two categories generate revenue, the third, while an important component of your business, does not.  So our $50/hour figure is low, and in order maximize efficiencies it is better to focus your staff’s time on client and patient-facing care, so that it will generate more than $50/hour in order to offset the dead-weight of the admin time. Moreover, the first two categories also possess much of the intrinsic motivation that leads to retention and job satisfaction for your current staff. That means that one way to mitigate the staffing crisis in veterinary medicine is to automate administrative work to create more hours of client and patient time for the employees you already have.

Let the humans be human

What if the solution to some of this shortfall was ready to work, already an expert in their job, would bring ‘no drama’ to your team, and got paid just $2/hour to start? Smart cabinets can reduce hours spent on low-value administrative time by automatically recording DEA-compliant controlled substance logs, keeping track of how much product is on hand, placing replenishment orders when stock is running low, and ensuring that each item dispensed is properly invoiced, so that medication charges aren’t missed. This smart cabinet can become your own personal sentry, always on call and always on watch, and the time previously spent on those administrative activities by your existing human employees can then be shifted to revenue-generating, value-creating, job-satisfying time with patients and clients.

Automation to create more staff time is a global trend. At a recent Covetrus roundtable, Dr. Mark Lawrie, CEO of The Veterinary Teaching Hospital of Sydney, said “it’s important to also continue maximizing the benefit of current technologies including practice management systems, Cubex and various other integrations. We need to use technology that creates efficiencies and reduces the large workload on our staff.”

And, this is not about ‘automating jobs away.’ In a recent analysis, McKinsey consulting found that a very small percentage of jobs can be fully automated, but about 60% of jobs have at least one third of associated tasks that can be automated. As we’ve seen, these are usually the activities that humans don’t want to do, that don’t generate revenue directly, and that, in the case of ensuring charges aren’t missed, that humans don’t seem to be very good at.

The next time you lament the fact that it’s been six weeks since you posted that listing and you still haven’t found the right employee for the practice, think about how to do more with what you’ve got with a little help from your robot friends.