Mentoring as a way of improving retention in the veterinary profession

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mentoring as a way of improving retention in the veterinary profession

The Lincoln Institute’s mentoring research pilot program is now in its final stage, and important lessons are already emerging for better retention of vets in the profession. By John Burfitt

When it comes to talking about the importance of mentoring in changing the future of the veterinarian landscape, the Lincoln Institute’s Dr Michael Powell has a lot to say.

Speaking with great passion, Dr Powell lists off the many ways mentoring can empower veterinary professionals to do their jobs more confidently and effectively, resulting in a more contented and engaged workforce.

Most importantly, he believes the adoption of effective mentoring in non-clinical veterinary skills can address the high attrition rates seen in the profession in recent years. A 2018 Lincoln Institute survey found 30 per cent of working vets were considering leaving the industry within the following 12 months. More than just talking about it, Dr Powell and the Lincoln Institute are actually doing something about it with their Global Sustainability Pilot research project, in partnership with the premium pet nutrition company Royal Canin. 

Driven by a shared passion to support a brighter future for the profession, this initiative commenced in March 2021, and involves key non-clinical skill mentoring for 129 practising veterinarians in 24 countries. It’s due for completion later this year.

“Our ‘Leading Edge for Veterinarians’ program was chosen for the pilot, as it’s a research-backed, professional mastery program that’s been equipping practitioners with skills that directly address the contributing triggers for burnout and career dissatisfaction for many years,” Dr Powell says.

The program’s development, he explains, was prompted by their 2018 research which demonstrated the key to helping vets experience more fulfilment and satisfaction in their work is not necessarily in the further development of their clinical skills—as important as they are—but in their non-clinical professional mastery.

“The better veterinarians are at developing non-clinical veterinary skills, the more likely outcomes will improve for patients, clients and veterinarians alike, and they will be able to unlock commercial success and sustainability for the businesses they work within,” he says.

A lot of it comes down to learning the confidence in being able to communicate and connect with people, as well as explain the harder issues so the client understands what’s going on as we’re advocating for the best outcomes for the pet.

Dr Tori Carroll, Tropical Vets

“The alarming levels of attrition from the veterinary profession still occurring globally points to the fact there’s still huge discrepancies in postgraduate non-clinical capability and development.”

For the pilot, students are being provided with 52 online videos that are delivered weekly. Presented by experienced veterinarians, these modules take about 20 minutes to complete, and students then apply what they’ve learned back in the workplace.

Module topics include creating better workplace relationships, building client rapport, maximising time efficiency, developing resilience, handling financial discussions with clients, and negotiating challenging conversations about pet treatment plans.

Pilot veterinarians also engage in a series of webinars with fellow students and mentors to discuss and compare their experiences resulting from the training, and to receive additional professional support with the issues raised.

“The challenge we’re addressing is many veterinarians don’t have a suitable non-clinical skills mentor readily available, so this program helps them to steer their way through to more success and fulfilment,” he says. “While the pilot focuses on the impact for recent graduates, this training program has also empowered veterinarians with up to 40-plus years’ experience. We’ve even have specialists claiming it’s been paradigm changing for them.”

The crux of this mentoring, Dr Powell states, is better aligning the EQ (Emotional Intelligence) of veterinary practitioners with their IQ. 

“Vet science draws in cohorts of incredibly intelligent individuals within a narrow band of IQ,” he explains. “What we’re addressing is the huge range of EQ that so strongly influences professional experience, like the ability to positively influence clients and colleagues and to enjoy more fulfilling, collaborative relationships with them. It’s also about understanding ourselves better to bring out our best in all facets of the job.”

While the research project still has months to run before its completion and results will start being analysed, there’s already clear insights that have emerged about the contemporary veterinary workplace.

The challenge we’re addressing is many veterinarians don’t have a suitable non-clinical skills mentor readily available, so this program helps them to steer their way through to more success and fulfilment.

Dr Michael Powell, Lincoln Institute

The most significant one, Dr Powell says, is that veterinarians across the globe face almost identical challenges in achieving fulfilment in their work, irrespective of the culture and socio-economic status of the countries they are practising in.

“Hearing a vet in the Philippines talk about their struggles with the confidence to charge appropriate fees, followed by a chorus of recognition by fellow practitioners from across six continents was really telling,” Dr Powell says.

“What’s also been interesting was hearing pilot students share sentiments like, ‘I thought I was alone in struggling with this and did not know what to do about getting help’. It’s apparent many veterinarians don’t know how to improve their experience in practice and, without a mentor readily available to support and guide them, feel quite alone.”

Townsville’s Dr Tori Carroll of the Tropical Vets clinic, and previous Royal Canin student ambassador, has been in the ‘Leading Edge for Veterinarians’ program since early 2021, joining not long after she graduated from James Cook University. She claims it has changed the way she approaches her work.

“A lot of it comes down to learning the confidence in being able to communicate and connect with people, as well as explain the harder issues so the client understands what’s going on as we’re advocating for the best outcomes for the pet,” Dr Carroll says.

She explains the lessons she’s gained through the program are more client communication focused, compared to the clinical mentoring she receives from senior colleagues in her workplace. 

“Speaking with colleagues about difficult cases is always really helpful, but this program focuses on aspects like how to speak to clients to get them to understand why what you’re recommending is important for their pet. At the early stage of a clinical experience, that’s so important.

“But I’ve also noticed changes in the way I practise and get results, and significant improvements in achieving better outcomes for my patients. My client feedback and reviews have also started to go through the roof, with the comments about the way I am treating pets. In terms of encouragement, that’s invaluable.” 

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