“Is the wait time for our vet appointment over yet?”

Veterinary wait times have always been a point of contention. I worked to soothe ruffled feathers when I worked as a Licensed Veterinary Technician, patiently explaining why people found themselves sitting in the lobby for two hours. I saw the anger and frustration first-hand, and I knew there was little I could do; demand eclipsed supply. Now, with the restrictions of COVID-19 protocols, those wait times have soared, increasing frustrations. While I no longer work in the veterinary field, I have the unique ability to view both sides' concerns, and there’s no winner — which means the animals are losing out in the deal.

Too Much Work for Too Few

The veterinary industry scrambles to find qualified employees at the best of times. With one of the highest turnover rates (not to mention a high suicide rate to match an all-time low mental health score), it’s rare to stumble on a practice working at maximum capacity.

Doctors leave practices to work on their own as relief vets or locums. Technicians and assistants burn out and leave the field entirely (yours truly is an example), or else bounce from practice to practice in hopes of finding a management system and co-workers they can cope with (which was my life before I gave up). Managers set unreasonable expectations, implement schedules without leniency, and allow work environments rife with bullying and laziness. It’s a broken system that doesn’t encourage people to flock to sign up.

Enter COVID-19 and the pressures of “essential workers” versus stay-at-home orders, and the system was destined to crumble from the inside. The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) listed veterinary hospitals on the essential list, but many employees faced problems with childcare needs and family members with high-risk medical conditions. Deciding to work every day presented a quandary. Many chose to step away to focus on their families' personal needs and even themselves (news flash: the medical profession isn’t made up of the healthiest individuals), crippling already short-staffed practices. It was early days, though, and no one thought much further into the future.

So many veterinary employees turned the enforced barriers into a joke. Memes popped up across social media featuring The Office’s Jim Halpert smiling through the blinds, expressing joy that clients were no longer allowed into the lobby. Receptionists, Assistants, and Technicians cheered shutting out the people their websites and advertisements promised to care deeply about. “One less thing to deal with.”

The hilarity and mockery may not have appeared on the practice’s feeds, but their employees didn’t take the time to censure their posts. Perhaps they meant to blow off steam and stress, but the actions were in poor taste — coming at a time when people were afraid and wondering whether they may lose their job or even their life.

With so many people confined to their homes, pets became a focus. General practices found themselves inundated with calls for everything from broken toenails to excessive licking to genuine emergencies. With no room in their schedules, those practices shifted the calls to local emergency rooms, and the system broke under the pressure. Minimal staffing used to handling a standard weekend of insanity drowned under the onslaught. Those same smug staffers stopped laughing, but those of us who’d witnessed the jokes have long memories.

Some veterinary practices rallied. Eliminating the need for rooms to open up and shuffle clients between waiting rooms and exam rooms, some ERs found a way to streamline their practice and maximize efficiency. They regained their footing and developed coping strategies.

Others stumbled over how to integrate curbside practices into their system. Wait times for a simple triage (the most sacred element of an ER) extended to TWO HOURS. My parents’ cat suffered from the chaotic rush at one such ER. Instead of a proper physical exam, he received a cursory glance that missed the presence of a hard mass in his stomach. A tumor — one that cost him TWO ADDITIONAL WEEKS of pain while my parents waited for the first available recheck at their regular vet.

In our family, no one’s laughing. Especially not my parents.

Patience After the Fact

Now, you can’t open social media without tripping over veterinary requests for patience. They implore you to follow procedure, listen to the instructions on phone messages, and read signs on doors. They beg for understanding and patience.

I can tell you that these dedicated individuals are grateful to be working, thankful that they can be there to help you and your pets, and continue to show up, day after day and hour after grueling hour. They deserve a little respect and not a rant because the available appointment times don’t match your schedule.

It’s a sudden backpedal from those gleeful memes at the beginning of lockdown — as if you can take back a cruel joke once it’s spoken. They remind us that everything is new for them, and we need to adapt to this “new normal” together. The same messages flash over and over again, attached to links with the suicide hotlines. They’d be easier for me to tolerate — were it not for those memes back in March.

Now, I’m not one to advocate for misbehavior or rudeness. I know how hard people in the industry work, having been in the trenches myself. I’m aware this is a trying time for everyone — owner and veterinary professional alike. But there are niggling little facts that aren’t getting shared.

For instance, the boom the veterinary industry is enjoying during this pandemic. While primary care spending in human health dropped $15 billion (since none of us wanted to venture into ANY human medical facility), the vet field saw an 18% increase in July alone. All that time spent at home watching pets and waiting outside clinics has turned a tidy profit for veterinarians. It’s not a fact they want to be shared, of course — you might not appreciate knowing they’re profiting from your cut hours and lost jobs.

That price DOES come with a price, of course: long hours. No one’s jumping at the chance to work in the vet field (that hasn’t changed). Even general practices come in early to disinfect everything to work around each other. Appointments run long, so they stay late. I get it. Other clients may not, and those are the ones those social media pleas speak to (I’m assuming). Everyone has a breaking point, though, something veterinary staff fail to keep in mind.

Some people still work from home, but most of the workforce returned to the office over the summer. Even while stay-at-home orders were in effect, working from home never translated to “unlimited available time.” Vet offices developed that misconception, though. To this day, they assume that prepping you for an unspecified wait time (assuming you get a warning) means they have the liberty to take as long as they need. After all, you work from home, so you can stay up all night to compensate. It’s a level of disrespect that explains why many owners lose their temper.

As a writer, I don’t have a “set” schedule. All the same, I work specific hours and days. It creates a framework for me, my family, and my clients. They know when I’m available, and when I’m not “around.” Sure, that flexibility makes scheduling vet and doctor appointments easier on everyone, but does that mean I appreciate spending 45 minutes sitting in my car without a single prompt the clinic’s running behind? Of course not.

Yet that happened to me not a month ago. I arrived early (which is the kind of person I am), followed the calling instructions to announce my arrival, and then sat in my car with no communication whatsoever. I had two articles due that day, as well as a doctor appointment in the afternoon. (Not to mention a cat that didn’t appreciate the extra time in his carrier) I watched several employees walking in and out of the door, yet no one paused to tell me things were running behind. The receptionist had my phone number; no calls were made to give me a head’s up. I was there, so I was stuck. In my car. With a cat. In a carrier. Good times.

It takes five seconds to apologize and let a client know things are running behind. Even if it’s a nice day, and I can keep the car’s windows down. I still appreciate knowing that I might be around for a wait — particularly if it hasn’t happened at previous visits. Just assuming I’m trapped and can’t doing anything about it? Now, who’s being disrespectful?

No Right, No Wrong

I honestly think this newest phase of veterinary disrespect has come about from complacency. Clients are literally “out of sight and out of mind.” With no face to watch in the lobby, no one to speak with, people get shunted aside.

I know (from working in multiple vet practices) that NO ONE keeps track of wait times. Fact of life. Even in ERs, someone may glance at a clipboard or monitor now and then, but no one’s actively staying on top of wait times. The face in the lobby, interacting with receptionists, IS that monitor. And now it’s gone. So laziness takes over.

The sense of urgency expressed in body language doesn’t carry in a voice over a cellphone line. Is it an emergency? Or can you leave a person and their cat in a car for two hours? The latter’s easier — and it’s less work. Lazy employees opt for the latter, especially if they’ve already dealt with many people throughout the day.

At my appointment, I was concerned (not frantic) and upset, but I tempered my voice — to be fair. Because I told myself I didn’t know what was going on behind the door. But I was upset at being discounted, at not being given the courtesy of a head’s up. How many other people do the same thing — because they received a proper upbringing?

No, you only hear the worst of the worst. And people react poorly out of fear, out of panic, out of anger. People have lost their jobs. People have no income and yet will spend every last cent on their pets. People skip going to their doctors right now (I know I’m guilty), but they brave the outside world for their pet. And then they sit in parking lots in silence. And when they make any protest, they’re slapped with these memes admonishing them for being a terrible person.

But where was the correction for the vet staff in March when they made their jokes? Why is no one speaking to them now? Asking them to look at the other side of the window they’re so happy to stand behind? Where’s the five-minute training reminder to encourage them to communicate? The Post-It with a time on the chart so they stay aware of how long everyone’s sitting in the parking lot?

There’s wrong on both sides. But people want to come down on the clients because you can’t attack essential employees.

Everyone’s afraid, though. And there ARE poorly-operated practices out there that aren’t handling things correctly. How does the public address that problem without facing condemnation?

I wish I had the answer. For the sake of the animals, if nothing else. Because they’re the ones suffering right now, more than anyone.

I’ve been a freelance writer since April 2020. I’m not afraid to speak my mind (clearly). I’m a firm believer in providing a voice where it’s most lacking.

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