Veterinarians in short
Pandemic stress worsening
challenges in animal health care
SNOHOMISH COUNTY — Increased workload and a lack of respect and pay are all contributing to veterinary staffing shortages in Snohomish County and across the country.
Animal health care has always been a physically and emotionally demanding job; the pandemic has only increased the pressure on the industry. Across the country, the work hours have gotten longer, the staff is dwindling and the clients angrier. Underpinning the crisis is worker attrition, the most prominent issue animal health care has struggled with through the decades.
According to Dr. Jennifer Koenig, a veterinarian at Snohomish Station Animal Hospital and a board member of the Washington State Veterinary Medical Association, the average time spent in the veterinarian field for technicians is five years, citing emotional burnout and physical demands as the root cause.
Although veterinarians themselves spend more time in the industry than techs, there is still stress. A 36-year study published in 2018 by the Center for Disease Control
and Prevention found that veterinarians are more likely to die by suicide
than the rest of the population. Female veterinarians are 3.5 times more likely to die by suicide than male colleagues at 2.1 times, the study found.
Overworked and overwhelmed
Part of the stress veterinarians face now is the added workload created by the pandemic. As services were kept to essential lifesaving care, wellness checks got delayed, creating an 8-month backlog of patients.
“These challenges facing veterinary medicine are nationwide. I recently attended a meeting in Atlanta, and every single
veterinarian had the same challenges,” Koenig said.
COVID-19 only exacerbated the situation. A Snohomish County veterinarian for 10 years, who the paper is calling “Smith” as they asked for anonymity due to fear of harassment, said their clinic lost two technicians during the pandemic due to a lack of childcare. According to The American Veterinary Medical Association, 63% of veterinarians and 90% of veterinary technicians are women. A Brookings Institution study found one in four working women have a child under 14 years old.
Dr. Chelsie Hollan of Cascade Animal Clinic in Monroe has been a veterinarian for 14 years and prefers to examine the patient while speaking with the owner and do treatment on the spot. Not only is it more personal, but it’s quicker and easier to explain a diagnosis and treatment than over the phone. Her clinic has three receptionists and six phone lines that are constantly busy.
Due to the number of patients, emergency hospitals are, as Hollan puts it, “drowning.” She said, “We had to add a doctor just for prompt care.” Even with the addition, Hollan said they are busy “every day, all day long.”
The high price of
Long waitlists and visit times don’t only cause stress on clinic staff but their clients. Hollan has observed more frustrated clients since COVID-19 restrictions took place.
Before the pandemic, “Smith” said their employer had fired three clients throughout their career until recently, now they fire three to four a month due to harassment and sometimes threats. “Smith” said, “I had a client threaten to shoot me if I didn’t treat their pet for free,” but the person the client was with quickly de-escalated the situation by claiming they were joking. “Smith” let it pass as the person being stressed.
Emotional distress can only excuse so much. Front office staff such as the receptionists and technicians bear the brunt of the abuse.”Smith” claims that after a technician had a particularly abusive client, the tech told them, “I can work at McDonald’s and make the same amount of money.” The technician wasn’t too far off. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median pay rate for a veterinary technician is about $36,000 a year.
“We are not viewed by many as medical professionals, but we have the same amount of school and debt and make a third of the money,” “Smith” said. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2020, the median pay for a family medicine physician was $214,370 per year compared to a veterinarian at $99,250 per year. For perspective, the starting pay for some fast-food restaurant general managers is $95,000 a year.
Part of the issue is people rarely have insurance for their pets, meaning they pay the full price for services, unlike human health care. Veterinarians keep their costs as low as possible but still need to keep up with operational expenses. “Smith” explained: “We have to pay our rent and the medical equipment costs the same as it does for humans, but we can’t charge the same, or we’ll lose clients.”
When they are not dealing with the strain of upset clients, the staff must also keep their emotions in check. Hollan said, “There are hard days. You’ll have three euthanasias, then your next pet is a puppy, and you have to change modes.” She explains that part of how she can cope with the hard days is by not taking on the client’s emotions.
Feelings are mixed on when and how things will get better.”Smith” said, “I don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. I’m in a dark place and trying to claw my way out.” Hollan is more optimistic, saying, “It’s going to get worse before it gets better, but we are resilient and will get through it.”
When asked what they would like to tell pet owners,”Smith” said: “Be kind and recognize we’re working hard. When we can’t take anyone, it’s because we don’t have the bodies and it breaks our hearts. If it’s not life-threatening, be patient and don’t flood the emergency rooms.”
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