Occasionally, we have ride-alongs or people doing job shadows, usually students ranging from high school to vet school. For those considering a career in veterinary medicine or future ambulatory vets, it is an interactive, uncensored day-in-the-life experience. The types of questions I did not really expect to get were regarding commuting and driving. The questions I get asked most often include:
- How big of an area do you serve? What are the logistics behind scheduling appointments? Who determines the route? How do you know how much to charge for a farm call?
- How much time do you spend in the car on average per day? What is the longest you’ve ever driven to one place? What do you do in the car all day?
- Does getting car sick mean you can’t be an ambulatory vet?
- Does the truck ever break down? Have you ever gotten in an accident with the work truck?
I’ve received these questions often enough that I decided to write a couple posts about this side of the profession from my personal experience.
Our service area (which I refer to as the realm) is vast, one of the largest I’ve seen. From where our office is located, we service up to an hour and a half in every direction…meaning our call radius is 1.5 hours, not factoring in traffic. The realm ends up being a large part of the western side of our state. While the majority of our work is North, an emergency an hour South of our office could mean a 2.5 hour drive from one end of our range to the other. Most practices I’ve spent time with service a 40 minute radius around their hub.
As for navigating the realm? I have to give a shout out to navigation apps. All of this would be a lot more difficult without today’s smart phones, GPS etc. I consider myself very fortunate to practice in a time when this technology is easily available. Not afraid to admit that I cannot imagine the farm call experience before Google maps existed. For the vast majority of our navigation, we use Google maps and Waze, which do a great job 95% of the time.
Luckily, our front office staff are all locals with an excellent knowledge of the cities/towns and road system. Equally important is knowledge about traffic. The commute to a particular barn in the morning could be well over an hour, while the same route could take 30 minutes if its around lunch time.
Efficiency requires concise, well-planned routes, the front desk carries the heavy burden of scheduling. And they are phenomenal at avoiding the big scheduling mistakes, which off the time of my head are:
- Return trips (same barn more than once in a day)
- Same stops (different doctors to the same barn in a day)
- To-and-fro (alternating near and far locations like North South North South …vs. starting north and working south throughout the day)
- Localizing (keeping all farms in a particular direction, vs having calls at complete opposite ends of the service radius)
I have full respect and appreciation for the skills of the front desk staff, because I dabbled in scheduling at my previous job and found it to be a pain-staking, hair-pulling mess.
The Financial Side
Minimizing drive time is essential, as our farm call fees (ranging from $80-140) over times barely cover the overhead and wages one way…not to mention if the next call is equally far at the other end of our range. Often times, the company actually loses money as the basic, rough example below shows:
Farm call 40 miles from office, 1 hour drive time
- Farm call fee charged to client: $100
- Gas: $10
- Vehicle wear and tear, mileage, licensing, insurance: $25
- Assistant’s time (company cost): $25
- Doctor’s time (company cost): $60
- Total cost to company for farm call (one direction): $120
Not a precise or perfect example, but easy to see why scheduling and routes are so important. And after all the effort is made into tactfully planning an efficient day, there comes an emergency call that changes it all…and even if the call is at the other side of the realm, traveling in peak traffic hours, those facts don’t register because the focus shifts to getting there safely and as soon as possible, so that we can do what we joined this profession to do- care for our equine patients and the clients attached to them.