Veterinarians are Unfairly Facing the Brunt of Customer Anger

The pandemic has been a period of great emotional stress and turmoil. Healthcare workers have been at the frontlines of the battle against Covid-19, putting their lives at risk to ensure that their patients receive the best healthcare possible. Often, some of the pressure that healthcare workers face comes directly from their patients. Veterinarians have suffered stress and burnout as they have tried to meet the surge in demand for their services.  According to the Journal of the American Veterinary Association, veterinarians are two to three-and-a-half times more likely to commit suicide compared to the rest of the population. Suicide is driven by the long hours they have had to work and the work burden they have had to take on. With the success of the vaccine rollout and the lifting of Covid-19 restrictions such as mask mandates, many pet owners have expressed annoyance that they are forced to wear masks inside veterinary practices. Yet, this ignores the tremendous risk that healthcare workers operate under and their need to operate according to higher standards of safety than the rest of the population. This is, according to DL-Online, one of many flashpoints that veterinarians have had to suffer through throughout the pandemic. 

The article by DL-Online points out that veterinary practices operate not just under a state’s Department of Health regulations, but also the guidelines of the state’s Board of Veterinary Medicine and that state’s Veterinary Medicine Association. Consequently, people who judge veterinarians as being overly harsh and strict in their health and safety standards, do not realize that frontline workers have a different set of standards. Vaccination does not prevent a person from catching Covid-19, it only reduces the risk of getting seriously sick or dying. Healthcare workers face an enormous number of people, often in very intimate situations, even with respect to pet owners. This volume of people seen in close quarters raises their risk of catching Covid-19, regardless of whether or not they are fully vaccinated. That means that without the protection of masks and other standards, they would potentially have higher fatality rates than the rest of the population. They need to be protected. 

DL-Online’s article was written around the experiences of veterinarians in Minnesota, but its lessons are widely applicable. One veterinarian interviewed, Dr. Samantha Zehr of the Detroit Lakes Animal Hospital, pointed out that veterinarians also have to live up to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards which dictate that veterinary practices must create safe working spaces for their employees. The considerations that have to be made dictate a more conservative and prudent set of standards than the general public has to live with. For instance, during the height of the pandemic, veterinary practices were only permitted to serve customers curbside, so that customers had their pets treated without them ever entering the building. The same was true when customers were collecting pet supplies and medications. At present, only one customer is allowed within the practice with their pet, but many other services can still only be delivered curbside.

Despite the risks that veterinarians are facing, many customers have not been particularly understanding and have made their frustrations clear. Receptionists can tell of many uncomfortable calls with customers irate at them for simply following guidelines. Dr. Zehrs estimates that one in five customers have gotten angry with staff in one form or another.

Veterinarians have tried to communicate with customers about the challenges they are facing, the risks they take on, and the importance of following these guidelines and regulations. If, for instance, a staff member catches Covid-19, then, according to the regulations, all unvaccinated staff members have to go into quarantine, putting pressure on those vaccinated staff members. So it works in favour of customers to ensure that veterinary practices stay Covid-19 free. Yet, in some ways the task is an uphill one. Many customers simply refuse to understand.

As the DL-Online piece shows, veterinary practices are sticking to the guidelines and regulations, ensuring that only open masked customers are allowed within the building and that other services are done curbside. This has made it harder to serve customers, given that pet ownership surged last year as people bought or adopted pets for the lockdown period. Many veterinary practices are booked out. The demand for veterinary services has never been greater.

Dr. Sara Mattson of the Aurochs veterinary practice, suggests that there is a possibility that if the virus’ progression gets worse, then veterinary practices such as hers will revert to providing all their services curbside. Guidance from the Centres for Disease Control (CDC) will determine how they respond. She made the point that with demand the way it is now, single-veterinarian hospitals such as hers often don’t have the capacity to deal with emergencies. She advises customers to be aggressive in seeking treatment, because if customers wait, they may find it difficult to get treatment for their pets.

An example of the supply-demand situation is given by Detroit Lakes Animal Hospital. The hospital is booked out 3 to three-and-a-half months for annual and vaccine visits, and one to two weeks out for urgent care/sick appointments.

The reason for this is simple. All around the economy there are supply-chain disruptions and that is true also of veterinary practices. The supply of veterinarians and their staff has remained fairly stagnant but thanks to the surge in pet ownership at the height of the pandemic, the demand for veterinarians has never been higher. The supply of veterinary services was choked further by the much needed Covid-19 restrictions. As essential services, veterinarians were allowed to remain open even as other businesses shut down. Yet, the combination of a limited supply of veterinarians and restrictions on veterinary practices, with the surge in pet owners, meant that veterinary practices have been struggling to cope for over a year. Over time, pent-up demand has grown and grown. 

No veterinarian likes to see an animal suffer or go untreated, but the situation at present is that it will take several months before things return to normal in terms of service delivery. Even that is not assured: if the Delta variant progresses further, restrictions may increase to protect veterinarians. Whatever happens, customer cooperation is important to keep veterinary practices Covid-19 free spaces. Without that, everyone suffers.