Letter: On call vet service was causing burnout, quitting

Here’s what happens behind the scenes

On call vet service was causing burnout, quitting

I would like to take the time to reply to the letter written by Joe Sawchuk and published in the Cowichan Valley Citizen on March 24. I have been a small animal veterinarian for 28 years, 20 of those spent in this beautiful valley. I have also rotated through an on call schedule for 25 of those years, until we finally stopped three years ago once emergency veterinary coverage became available in Nanaimo and Langford.

I very much empathize with Mr. Sawchuk. It must feel like a long drive with a distressed pet to get to an emergency clinic after hours. And I know from talking with colleagues that we would like nothing more than a 24 hour veterinary facility in the valley. But let’s crunch some numbers for that to happen — purchase ($1 million and up) or lease a building, retrofit it as a veterinary hospital with all the medical equipment needed to deal with and hospitalize emergent cases (again, $1 million and up), hire skilled staff for three shifts per day (veterinarians, animal health technologists (AHTs) and support staff).

Now let’s look at the issues. Firstly, deep pockets. I certainly could not qualify for a loan to get this started and suspect many other clinic owners are in the same boat. Secondly, and most critically, staffing. There is a nation-wide shortage of veterinarians and AHTs and attracting people who want to work night shifts and even day shifts at an emergency facility is very difficult. It’s difficult enough to even get people to work at non-emergency clinics. So when someone opens a 24 hour hospital in the valley we would 100 per cent support it.

Secondly, I will address Mr. Sawchuk’s suggestion that the clinics in the valley have a rotating on call system. We did for many years! And lost vets because of it. Here’s what happens behind the scenes. Firstly, remember that the on call vet continues to work their regular day shifts. We had four vet clinics in the rotation so each clinic took every fourth weekend Friday to Monday, and one day per week. The pager would be turned on at 5:30 p.m. and call finished at 8 a.m. All calls were answered. And they ranged from broken toenails and minor problems that didn’t need to be seen but wanted advice, to truly emergent problems — trauma, urinary blockage, bloat etc., to the client that had seen a problem for many hours or days but now felt that their pet needed to be seen. So the vet on call could guarantee at the very least being woken several times a night, but honestly had to go in to the clinic more times than not.

First problem — understaffing — even with an AHT called in, the monitoring, care and treatment of a critical animal is not ideal without a full support staff.

Secondly, veterinary exhaustion. I have just put in a 10 to 11 hour day at work, and even if I deal with your animal correctly, I’m looking forward to another day’s work in several hours. It’s a recipe for burnout and mistakes and makes it orders of magnitude more difficult to attract veterinary talent to the area. There were nights I slept on a dog bed in my office as it wasn’t worth driving home for a couple of hours sleep before getting up to start again. And weekends on call meant that we worked 12 days straight before another weekend. It was unsustainable and we lost good vets because of it both to burnout and to moving away.

In conclusion, Mr. Sawchuk, I want to say that I know no one in the veterinary profession who isn’t working to their limit to provide care to animals. We absolutely share your concerns and know that the situation is not perfect, but would ask that you try to understand our limitations. Living in this valley with a smaller population as in many areas of Canada means that we cannot provide all the services of a larger centre, but we do all that we can!

Gillian Wiley

Cobble Hill