One of my clients posted the photo at the top of this page to my clinic’s Facebook back in 2016. It was a tongue-in-cheek bit; a joke about how Jax, the dog, would drag his owner to the vet because he misses us.
It’s a photo that I’ve been looking back at recently. The context of the image is so important because it could very easily tell a very different story. It could be an image of a pet waiting outside because help was unavailable. It could be a client feeling lost and uncertain with nowhere to turn.
I’ve been thinking about the accessibility of care and our responsibility to both our patients and our teams. How do we balance our need for work-life balance with customer demand for care outside of standard clinic hours? How do we look after the needs of both our teams and our clients? Who is there for our patients when we can’t be?
In this article, I’d like to look at the different ways that clinics meet the needs of their clients and patients after hours and talk a little about the approach that I take at my practice.
Do your clients want after-hours care?
In short: yes. If your clinic offers on-call hours, you’ve probably experienced this demand first-hand. The health of a pet doesn’t follow a standard schedule, and for many people, the majority of the hours they spend with their pets are in the evenings. If they’re going to notice an issue, there’s a good chance that it will happen when your clinic is closed.
For new pet owners in particular, after-hours care is a really important draw in choosing a veterinary clinic. They generally don’t know whether an issue is significant enough to require immediate attention, and that can make them particularly anxious about the health of their pets. We’ve all heard stories of first-time pet owners rushing to the emergency room after their dog vomits, or when their cat won’t stop scratching an itch. The peace of mind that comes with knowing that their veterinary team is available to answer questions is hugely important to this group in particular.
What are the options?
The landscape for after-hours care can feel pretty bleak. Generally, the pressure is on the pet owner to figure out their options in an urgent situation. Here are a few ways that a late-night call to your clinic can play out.
1. Voicemail only
The client calls with an urgent concern and reaches a voicemail that directs them to the emergency room. This takes an already difficult situation and adds an additional level of stress. If they are calling your clinic, that likely means that they aren’t sure if the situation they’re dealing with is truly emergent. Now they need to assess how urgently the animal needs care and whether they can afford an expensive visit to the ER.
2. Paid triage
If a client can’t reach you, they’ll likely turn to the next available care network. Often, this is a triage service that can assess the clinical symptoms and direct the client to the appropriate care. Here’s the catch: these systems are pricey and require an account. Best case scenario, the client pays a significant amount of money to learn that they don’t actually need to go to the emergency room. While these measures can help, they’re a bad experience for a client in their hour of need, and they largely exist outside of your relationship with the patient.
Traditionally, the approach to after-hours care was simple- make sure that someone from your clinic is available to support callers during late-night crises. Offering on-call hours keeps treatment in-house, allowing for continuity of care for the animal, as well as retaining revenue that might otherwise be lost to the ER.
More and more clinics are struggling to maintain on-call hours, though. It’s just too hard on staff and has been directly linked to higher levels of burnout, lower job satisfaction, and a higher risk of physical health issues. Many associates simply don’t want to work a full day in-clinic, then spend their evenings answering calls that may or may not be true emergencies. For the clinics that do offer on-call, there’s a high volume of non-emergent calls interrupting their evenings, adding to the strain.
How I handle after-hours care
To start, I’ll quickly summarize the major details about my practice. I’m a solo DVM and practice owner with a support staff of two vet assistants and one customer service representative. We’re open from 8-5 Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday, and we serve a community both within our small town and the surrounding areas. That leaves a lot of time that I’m not available when my clients have concerns.
That’s why I work with GuardianVets to provide care for my community when I’m not around. When my clinic is closed, our phones forward directly to the GuardianVets team. A staff of credentialed veterinary technicians triages the calls, directing truly emergent cases to the ER, while encouraging others to book the next available appointment. For GV, the question is never “if” a patient needs to be seen. Instead, it’s just a question of how soon the animal should come in.
First, my clients can always reach someone in their time of need, at no additional cost to them. They don’t need to create an account or access any external service- instead, they just call my normal clinic number. They have peace of mind in knowing that a team is there for them, even when I can’t be.
On my end, it’s incredibly freeing to know that my clients have someone to turn to when they have questions. I don’t need to offer on-call, but they can still get access to care when they need it. Cases that would have unnecessarily ended up in the ER are instead retained as appointments in my clinic, which recaptures a lot of revenue that would otherwise be lost. As a solo practitioner, GuardianVets allows me to provide care far beyond what I’d be able to otherwise, meeting client demand without overwhelming myself and my team.
If your clinic is struggling to balance client demand for after-hours care, remember that you don’t need to do it alone. Learn more here.