Vet clinics during COVID-19

by Tucak P
18 May 2020

Having a solid set of business values to work to, combined with strong leadership and good communication, has meant Melbourne veterinarian Dr Kevin Foster and his team have been able to successfully implement the necessary changes to continue providing veterinary care to their patients and clients during the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.

Dr Foster owns the Vets in Melbourne group of practices, and is the principal veterinarian at Vets on Parker in Templestowe in Melbourne’s north-east. Like other veterinary practices across Australia and the globe, Dr Foster and his team had to adapt quickly to keep their staff and clients safe.

“We have still been offering the same range of services, however we have progressively implemented a range of changes to how we practice. We initially started with restrictions on the number of clients in the waiting room and coming into consultation rooms. This meant one client per pet and only two clients in the waiting room. In addition, we also placed line markings on the floor advising clients to keep the required social distance - including 1 metre from the front reception counter and from consultation tables”, explained Dr Foster.

With veterinarians and support staff at the frontline of the interaction with clients and their pets, the use of personal protective equipment (PPE) has been important in protecting team members from the risk of contamination and reducing the risk of spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus disease.

“Face shields are worm by all team members at all times. Early on, we also split our staff into two teams, Team A and Team B, to reduce the risk of the whole team ‘going down’ in the event one team member tests positive to COVID-19. How this will work in practice remains to be seen”, said Dr Foster.

At the same time as implementing their split team roster, the Vets in Melbourne group also started conducting contact-free appointments. This involved the clients staying outside the veterinary hospital, from where they were greeted by a team member, who then brought the pet into the building for examination and treatment by a veterinarian.

“We’ve been experimenting with different methods of how best to chat with the client during the examination process, including through telephone calls and the use of FaceTime. I’ve also experimented with a very limited number of veterinary telemedicine consultations, in order to assess the feasibility of offering this type of service to our clients”, said Dr Foster.

The Federal Government confirmed veterinarians as being an essential service back in late-March. The implementation of safety measures and precautions in veterinary hospitals has enabled veterinary practices to continue offering their services whilst maintaining a high level of veterinary care to their patients during a time when the importance of pets to their human owners has been highlighted.

“Veterinarians and our support staff play a vital role in our communities. Being listed as an essential business only reaffirms this. People now more than ever need their pets – for companionship above all but to reduce anxiety as well. The safety measures we’ve implemented, including splitting our teams in two to try to reduce the risk of a clinic having to close if there is a workplace COVID-19 infection demonstrates our commitment to providing this care”, said Dr Foster.

For the Vets in Melbourne team, the response from their clients has been overwhelmingly accepting of the various protocols that have been put in place, as Dr Foster notes, “It has mostly been a surprisingly positive experience. All our clients have been very happy with the new arrangements and in fact have outwardly thanked us for taking this initiative to keep them safe”.

“Panic buying, however, did take us by surprise. We’ve commonly had clients requesting six month’s supply of their pet’s heart medications or thyroid treatment, as well as a run on prescription pet food. This was a challenging situation – doing our best to reassure our clients that this panic buying was unnecessary but at the same time, not really knowing what the quality of the veterinary product supply chains really was!”.

Dealing with this underlying feeling of uncertainty - around the availability of goods, business viability, health and wellbeing of staff, and the presence of COVID-19 within the community has led to many Australians experiencing feelings of anxiety and stress during the pandemic.

Dr Kevin shares some of his experiences running a veterinary practice during this uncertain time, “It certainly has been a stressful time. I have close friends who own restaurants who have had their businesses all but shut down. This really hit home the seriousness of the situation. Is this going to happen to us? How would our clinics manage? How would our staff cope? Was I going to have to let staff go? Needless to say, this has led to a few sleepless nights. Managing the different levels of anxiety amongst staff has also been very challenging; however this was more of a problem earlier on and has settled since we’ve implemented the contact-free consultations”.

The commonly heard maxim, prior preparation prevents poor performance, has been particularly apt for veterinarians like Dr Kevin Foster and his team in how they’ve been able to adapt to the challenges of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.

“Stick to your business’ values and provide strong leadership to your team. We have a strong set of values which has helped us with decision making during this time. In addition, good communication is vital - veterinarians need to communicate with their teams now better than ever. Change is stressful for everyone and a good leader can help their team manage this. Teams are much better able to digest changes to their work if the reasons behind the changes are articulated”, said Dr Foster.

This article appeared originally in the May 2020 issue of the Australian Veterinary Jornal (AVJ). 

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