With Australia officially in recession, many believe now is the time to embrace continuing professional development as a way to be ready for whatever the future holds. By John Burfitt
Ask around about how veterinary clinics have been coping through the COVID restrictions of the past six months, and some vets offer a surprisingly upbeat report on the state of play.
“So far, it seems the profession has enjoyed an upswing in demand for services and therefore hasn’t perceived a need to shift focus,” Dr Michael Powell, director of the Lincoln Institute in Sydney, says.
It’s a similar story on the other side of the country. “The veterinary industry [in Australia] seems to be riding the storm reasonably well,” Perth veterinary communications management consultant Dr Phil Tucak recently told the US website dvm360.
Yet with the nation’s economy officially declared in September as being in recession, the business landscape has shifted. Which means, Dr Powell adds, this is not the time to be complacent, especially in terms of new training and career upskilling.
“New focus should be placed on a practice’s continuing professional development training budget—and urgently,” Dr Powell says.
“As consumer confidence declines and household discretionary spending decreases, the financial opportunities that arise from training in strategic areas will become increasingly important.”
All state and territory veterinary boards, through the Australasian Veterinary Boards Council (AVBC) and the Australian Veterinary Association (AVA), have agreed upon a minimum requirement of 60 CPD points over a consecutive three-year cycle.
But when it comes to the way a practice allocates its annual CPD budget, some important factors need to be addressed—starting with perceptions, Dr Powell states.
“The CPD budget is frequently misconceived as a bottom-line operating cost rather than an investment,” he says. “Consequently, many practices will reign in CPD spending during times of uncertainty, when doing the exact opposite is what’s needed. Investing now to shore up the future of the business makes basic sense.”
Dr Powell, who was behind the Lincoln Institute’s 2019 landmark vet shortage research and multi-national industry think tank, believes training and development that supports client retention, stable workplace teams and optimised margins are paramount in current times.
“Education to improve commercial acumen and support implementing business strategy can have a profound and rapid impact on business performance and also sustainable results,” he says. Training practising veterinarians in non-clinical professional mastery, including such areas as valuing themselves more appropriately and improved effectiveness in communication of that value, is just as vital.
“Skills and strategies that assist veterinarians to successfully manage the day-to-day rigours of clinical practice also drive career satisfaction along with enhanced commercial performance,” he says.
An effective CPD strategy should strike a balance of clinical skills with professional behavioural skills, believes veterinary industry trainer Dr Diederik Gelderman, who also runs his own practice, Highlands Veterinary Hospital.
In unsettled times, training in areas traditionally defined as ‘soft skills’ can make the world of difference in terms of practice performance and client engagement.
“It all comes down to training yourself and your team so there’s an understanding of how to be a good person in the business as much as it is being a good practitioner,” Dr Gelderman says. “Training that develops your team to be the kind of people that clients like, want to engage with and, importantly, trust is an essential right now.
“A team that is confident in what they’re offering and have good communication with the clients and their pets is an empowered one. That’s what will have a huge impact on not only client retention, but also having a staff performing at their best.”
While focus needs to be placed on CPD, Dr Gelderman explains that does not mean current practice budgets need to be increased.
“You don’t need to be spending any more now than usual, but you should always be investing about 10 per cent of the practice income in CPD as a good measure,” he says. “If you’re not following that 10 per cent rule, then now is the time to start.”
Dr Sam Nugent, the director of the Scone Equine Hospital in the NSW Hunter Valley, is also the past president of AVA’s Equine Veterinarians Australia (EVA) group.
He believes improving the wellbeing of the practice team, with additional training in human resources and leadership, should be a top priority in these times.
“Knowing exactly what you can do with your staff, how to keep them safe, and abide by all the COVID restrictions is so important, but so too is knowing how to keep them happy, content and motivated,” he says.
“This might be the time to get in some external HR advice, and if you want to set yourself up for future business success, then also look at leadership training. Senior staff represent the future of the business, so it’s imperative to educate them about what it means to be a strong manager and how to run a business effectively.”
Dr Nugent recommends utilising the resources on the AVA’s Veterinary Business Group website as a starting point for where and how to access accredited training. The group’s upcoming virtual three-day Stepping Forward Summit is on 21-23 October, and focuses on managing a veterinary practice in today’s rapidly-changing environment. The course is also worth 9.5 CPD points.
“Often I can’t make it to these conferences due to geography, but this year as it’s all online, I have signed up as it’s a great opportunity to watch and listen to what is going on with everyone else,” he says.
“There are so many courses available online through different organisations so it’s a matter of knowing what it is you need to learn more about, then go looking around to see what’s on offer.”
And he offers these final words of advice about deciding between those many courses. “Be clear about what you want to learn and check what accrues points. Then make sure what you choose is quality and worth your time. So, choose wisely.”