Yes, it is difficult right now to get into your veterinarian.
Have you noticed your family veterinarian is crazy busy, and it seems impossible to get an appointment? It’s not just you; we in veterinary medicine have seen it too. Since the end of April, veterinary clinics have seen an uptick in visits for well-pet visits, urgent care, and emergencies.
This is more than the usual summertime spike, and it is nationwide, veterinary industry magazines report. Veterinary management websites are full of veterinarians and managers asking how other clinics manage the increase in business. Local vets are maxing out their networks, trying to get new employees.
After researching, I’ve found out exactly why it is so hard to get an appointment with your veterinarian, and listed it below. Toward the end of the article, I will give some tips for getting your pet seen.
Everyone stayed safe at home
During the first part of shelter-at-home orders, many people postponed routine pet medical care. The American Veterinary Medical Association and the Centers for Disease Control recommended that veterinarians restrict care to urgent/emergent needs. These recommendations were to decrease exposure to Covid-19 and make sure personal protective equipment (PPE) would be available for the human medical field. March and April were very slow for many veterinary clinics as people hunkered down and put off those pet physicals and dental care appointments. We are thankful they did as it let us focus on emergencies. We were able to use fewer drugs and equipment so the human medical field could have more. And finally, it gave us time to update all our protocols to keep everyone safe during this pandemic.
Now it means a back up
If your family veterinary clinic is a 2-doctor practice, they see about 30 well-pet/non-emergency appointments per day. With just a one month quarantine, they will have a back up of 720 pets that need routine appointments. In LA, where I live, the AVMA recommended we not see routine appointments for at least 90 days to conserve drugs and equipment. That is a back up of … wow… over 2100 appointments!!
Happy-ever-afters add to the challenge
That doesn’t include the new pets that were added to families during the height of the lockdown. Remember all those fantastic pictures of empty shelters? All those newly-homed pets need to be seen.
Your stress is stressing out your pet
Everyone has been home more often for the past 8 months. When you are home, you automatically give your animal companion more attention, which means you notice problems more quickly. A bump or lump you may not have seen previously now seems to stare at you while you are on those work Zoom meetings. And bad doggy/kitty breath… so much more noticeable when you are working in bed with Spot lying next to you!
You being home more is also affecting your pet. Changes in routine can stress our pets, especially cats. Our stress levels have increased with the Covid-19 pandemic, which can get telegraphed to our pets. Veterinarians have noticed an uptick in problems caused by pet stress.
Emergency clinics are overwhelmed, too
The demand for veterinary services has been insatiable this summer. Even our usual overflow systems are breaking down. At one point, the local emergency veterinary clinics sent out a bulletin; they were overwhelmed and would turn away all pets that did not have a life-threatening emergency. This added more demand to general practice clinics that now need to see urgent-but-not-life-threatening problems that we would usually send to the emergency clinics.
The other half of the problem
Besides a sharp increase in veterinary care demand, there has also been a decrease in supply — appointment time and veterinary staff available.
Safety takes time
Covid-19 has forced veterinary clinics to re-invent their systems. Most clinics are not allowing pet owners into the clinic or are restricting the number of clients who can be in the building at one time. “Curbside service” has become the norm. The new safety protocols add time to appointments, which means fewer appointments are available for clients. Many clinics have been forced to stop taking new clients altogether.
The phones are out of control
Curbside service and no clients allowed in the building have caused another staff problem — not enough employees to answer the phone. Pre-Covid, clients would call to make an appointment, then come in with their pet. After the visit, they would pay at the front desk. The doctor may or may not need to contact the owner later with test results or a follow-up. Now, the system is different.
- The client calls to make an appointment.
- The staff calls or texts to confirm the appointment and explain Covid-19 protocols.
- The client calls when they arrive.
- The staff comes to get the pet and often calls to get more details or explain treatment plans.
- The doctor will call with an update when the pet is ready to go.
- The front desk then calls the client to obtain payment.
That can be 6 phone calls for one visit — no wonder the staff can’t keep up! Recently I called a neighboring vet clinic to get vaccine records and was on hold for 30 minutes before someone was able to help me. Last week I was on hold for 2 hours waiting to speak to a veterinary surgeon about an emergency case we were sending her.
The answer isn’t as simple as hiring more staff and getting more phone lines. Veterinary technicians and receptionists were already in short supply before the pandemic, and the demand keeps growing. Training takes time we simply don’t have right now.
And the last reason that it is hard to get your pet seen right now is that we are dealing with Covid-19, too. We have families, kids are home remote learning, daycare facilities are shut down, and some veterinary staff are immunocompromised or live with elderly relatives. With the nature of veterinary medicine, we cannot social distance from one another. If one employee is exposed to Coronavirus, most of the staff will need to be tested or quarantined. This happened at my clinic in July. An employee went to a family picnic, and soon after, found out a family member had contracted Covid-19. Four employees had to be tested and quarantined, and the employee was out of work for over two months while she nursed sick family members and grieved the deaths of two.
Clinics have been forced to close for days or weeks to give employees time to test, quarantine, and thoroughly disinfect the clinic. Of course this adds to the challenges.
We know this is challenging for our clients
This is hard for us, too. We feel horrible when we can’t see your pet. Our calling is to help animals, and many of us are working 60-hour weeks to try to squeeze in everyone. One of the vets at my clinic texted me about a client at 11 pm one night. I called her to get more information and found out she was STILL at the clinic emailing clients. Her schedule starts at 8 am. 12–16 hour days have been the norm as we try to help everyone.
Okay, but my pet still needs to be seen, help me!
Now that you understand why we are so busy and can’t get your pet in right away, what can you do? Here are some tips that may help.
First, be nice. We are stressed. You are stressed. Your pet is stressed. Kindness matters more than ever, and it will go far. If you do not have an emergency, be patient when you call. If you do have an emergency situation, tell us calmly and briefly what is happening. We will get someone to help you as quickly as possible.
When you do come to the clinic, make sure you understand and follow the rules. In many cases, we are following the rules laid down by the city or state. We don’t make them, and they are a pain to follow, but we want to stay safe and uphold the law. Receptionists are the most public-facing employees in many clinics, and constant exposure is exceptionally challenging, not to mention stressful. Wear a mask when required. Don’t yell at us because you have had Covid-19 and don’t think you need to wear a mask. Don’t tell us we are pawns of the government. Don’t ridicule us for our no-contact rules. We are doing our very best.
Strategies to be seen sooner
Now that you have the basics, here are some hacks.
Call early. Often clinics reserve one or two appointments in the morning and one or two in the afternoon for urgent problems. If you have called in the afternoon and weren’t able to get an appointment, ask if they have same-day appointments for the next morning. If so, ask when the best time is to call and then follow instructions.
Make an appointment, then request that we call you if another client cancels their appointment. Call daily to check on cancellations. Sometimes we are too busy to call you when we get a cancellation, but if you call us we can squeeze you in.
Be flexible. Typically, clinics can work around your schedule. Right now, it might mean your appointment is pushed out weeks.
Try a drop-off appointment. Many vets are allowing clients to drop off a pet in the morning and pick them up in the afternoon. The pet will be examined when there are a few spare minutes, and stays in a comfy run or cage the rest of the time, with food, water, and a bed.
Ask if your family vet is doing telemedicine. With this simple system you will use your phone to video chat with your veterinarian and show her your pet’s funky ear or odd lump. Telemedicine can only be used in certain situations, but can save time and exposure, so it’s worth asking about.
Ask if an appointment is necessary or if a phone call would be an acceptable substitute. We want to regularly see your pets to make sure they are healthy, but skipping one visit might be ok, depending on your pet’s condition.
Make appointments for early in the morning. Everyone is fresh, and we likely aren’t running behind yet.
Don’t exaggerate your pet’s issue to get seen on an emergency basis. We will know, and in the future, we will assume you are crying wolf.
Next Level Hacks
Here are some ideas that may or may not work to get your pet seen more quickly.
Be nice. Yes, I know I said it before but it can’t be overstated. As the pandemic wears on, we have been threatened, screamed at, and spit on. It’s not ok. We are human, and a smile and word of kindness when on a busy day can make veterinary staff go the extra mile for you.
Ask about housecalls. Some veterinarians will reserve time at lunch or in the evening for housecalls. Typically the vet will bring an assistant, and they can examine your pet outside or inside while social distancing. Expect to pay more for this service.
Explore other options. Some technicians will do home visits to give medication or injections. Many clinics are offering delivery service for food and medication, especially for people who are immunocompromised. An employee might be willing to pick up your pet on the way to work in the morning and drop it off after work.
If your pet is having an emergency, call right away and don’t let the receptionist put you on hold until you have stated there is an emergency. The receptionist will quickly get the correct person to guide you.
I hope this helps. And again, please be kind. This has been an unprecedented year for you and for us.
Audrey Zetta lives in LA. She has an MBA, an MSSM, three spoiled cats, and has been managing veterinary clinics for years. You can connect with her on twitter @sweetandzesty.