Logistics behind Ambulatory Work

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.


The Realm

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.


Scheduling

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.

the Vet’s Assistant

The idea of having a vet assistant in the field was obscene to my first employer. She viewed them as an unnecessary (and even impossible) expense and liability for any solo practitioner. Whether it’s for the similar reasons, most vets in the area do not have assistants. I remember reading an AAEP article back in vet school, which discussed a multitude of reasons and scenarios in which it does pay off for a solo practitioner to hire a field assistant. I remember reading the article, never having seen an equine vet with an assistant, and thinking what a luxury it would be.

Then I hit that job lottery, the place I work now. It’s not that assistants are merely an option, but that taking assistants in encouraged…and there is the obvious list of reasons. There is also the not-so-obvious list of benefits and rewards that come with having a comrade out in the field.


Teamwork Makes the Dream Work

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DVM 360 has a recent article about this very topic, called Equine vet techs deserve a seat.

Our assistants are wonderful, and with individualized training, their potential is endless. The basic responsibilities in our practice include managing daily truck inventory and restocking, manage truck maintenance/repairs/cleaning, cleaning/maintenance/trouble shooting of all equipment (xrays, ultrasound, endoscope, dental equipment etc), cleaning/organizing/packing up for all appointments, horse handling (some vaccinate and draw blood), processing in-house lab work, uploading all digital imaging/lab results, help manage schedule, driving (allowing plenty o time to SOAP and invoice for the doctor) and so forth. With the help of the assistant, I can do 3 dentals in the time it took me to do one alone. I easily see three times the number of appointments in a day with how our team works.


Unsung Heroes in the Field

But aside from the logistics, there’s the other advantages…company. It’s a lot of hours in a truck most days (2-3 hours of driving usually, sometimes up to 6 for a day with ERs and appointments). You can’t put a dollar amount on good company, especially on long exhausting or stressful days, where you have someone who was with you for every moment of it. It’s both a professional and a personal bond. Comic relief, podcast discussions, small talk, singing along with the radio, reviewing cases we saw that day, an ear to listen, or even just the feeling that you’re not alone taking on the world of equine medicine. Not to mention the safety…unfortunately, not all owners are as skilled at handling their horses as we would hope. There has been many a time (and more often than not) that the situation becomes significantly safer by having the assistant handle the horse with special restrain techniques, or even just positioning for exams/flexions/nerve blocks. I remember coming back from an ER at 3AM, after a full day of work, and rolling down the windows singing at the top of my lungs trying to stay awake on a windy back-country road….I came close to falling asleep at the wheel multiple times, and am very thankful I haven’t had to do that again.

And for everything they do, the things doctors expect, appreciate and need….there is an endless list of all the unseen, unmentioned ways that they support us on a daily basis. Being a veterinarian, you face challenging, humbling, heartbreaking and gut wrenching experiences…and experience equally rewarding, uplifting and inspiring moments. It’s those rewarding experiences that give me the feeling of happiness…and the only thing that makes that happiness even greater, is when it’s shared with a teammate.


Thank you to all the veterinary assistants and technicians who remain unsung heroes in the veterinary field. Whether you’re in the exam room, surgery suite or field, the wonderful aspects of vetmed would not be nearly as wonderful (or even possible) without you!