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By re-thinking how veterinary practices can be managed to make best use of existing staff while optimising their wellbeing, Dr Jocelyn Birch Baker is playing a pivotal role leading the profession through the current era of workforce challenges. By Phil Tucak
Dr Jocelyn Birch Baker has lived the ups and downs of practice ownership and experienced firsthand the challenges that many veterinary businesses are grappling with around staff retention and recruitment. In 2022, she was named the Veterinary Business Thought Leader 2022 by the Australian Veterinary Association Veterinary Business Group, awarded in recognition of her work championing flexible working in the veterinary profession.
“So much has changed in our profession and having the hindsight of 40 years, I can see that we have adapted to many of the changes—like equipment, techniques, emergency clinics and large hospitals,” she says. “But what we haven’t adapted to is the change in our people and the social expectations. We cannot expect people to work as they did in the previous century. Society has changed and women are encouraged to have a career now.”
Turning the traditional model of how veterinary practices are run on its head, Dr Birch Baker advocates a ‘staff first’ philosophy that also accommodates clients’ needs, resulting in positive workplaces that foster growth and care.
“Once you start having conversations with staff, so many different ways of doing things pop up that are advantageous to the clinic, the team and the clients and patients,” says Dr Birch Baker.
“What if we close at 5pm or 4pm and our team can go home, and we have an evening clinic from 6pm to 8pm? Our clients love this—it gives them more flexibility to get to the clinic and the staff are happy to come in as the children are happy at home. Weekend work? Share it around, the sporty people might like the weeknights and the others the weekend clinics.”
Dr Birch Baker’s core message is focus on working with the most limiting resource of all—clinic veterinarians.
“Be brave, build trust and knowledge. The ‘same old’ is not working, so do something different. Change the roster every week. Get better equipment, have great meetings, develop systems that work for the team and therefore the business. Improve communication, listen to your people. Have a caring culture; care about your people as well as your patients and clients,” she says.
“We must also be able to say ‘no’. Such as, ‘No, you cannot speak to me like that’, ‘No, I cannot come to the phone right now’, ‘No, I cannot stay back’. Practice owners and managers must back their team up. Teach them, set the expectations, develop a great culture, trust them and they will trust you and stay with you.”
Learning from experience
Growing up in a small town in central Queensland, Dr Birch Baker says she always loved animals and wanted to know how to prevent, treat and heal their ailments to improve their lives. Having attended a one-teacher primary school where it was quite acceptable for children to leave after grade seven, she is eternally grateful to her parents who gave her the opportunity to continue studying.
After graduating from the University of Queensland, Dr Birch Baker worked in central Queensland, both in a town vet clinic, and on a large cattle station specialising in herd health, genetics and nutrition. She was also heavily involved in livestock industry organisations, before later relocating to Rockhampton where she bought High Street Vet Surgery with her partner.
“Having my own practice was always my dream. The opportunity to balance being the best veterinarian I could be with all the personal challenges of a business including colleagues, clients and pets combined with the logistical challenges of financials, cleaning and the equipment and everything else—it was a puzzle that I wanted to solve,” says Dr Birch Baker.
“Then the reality hit. It was just awful to start with. I had no idea and not enough time. At the beginning, I struggled to employ well and did not have the policies and procedures and systems to manage the practice.”
Not wanting to continue her work life like this, Dr Birch Baker changed tack.
“I read books and attended a business and marketing course. I gained confidence in the decisions I was making, and when one vet left, I was lucky enough to find two vets and so I had time to work on myself and the business,” she recalls.
“My realisations were: educate and inform yourself. Develop trust. Upskill in any area you don’t understand. Delegate, delegate, delegate. There are amazing people in this world who do things a thousand times better than you do, so utilise them.”
From learning to mentoring
After minimising her own clinical workload, Dr Birch Baker began mentoring veterinary and other business owners. The culmination of this journey has been setting up her consultancy Smooth Operating Vets with the goal of reducing the attrition of clinical veterinarians by asking practice owners and managers to change the way they manage their teams.
A joint venture with an accountant and a business coach, the small team work together to reinvigorate businesses, and help create mother-friendly veterinary practices.
“Veterinary mums often wish to come back to the career they love and thrive in but returning to work can be difficult as they are most often the primary carer for the children,” says Dr Birch Baker.
“Changing the perception of the way we manage our practices and rosters, and actioning the changes, would enable more vets to stay in our practices. More support for vets returning to practice means understanding the hours they can work and upskilling and developing their confidence again. We need to get vets back to practice now—otherwise, we will perpetuate the ongoing crisis.”