Working part time, for reasons that range from caring for children to approaching retirement age, has become a common practice in veterinary medicine—and some say that's not necessarily problematic for the profession or bad for business.
About 40 percent of veterinarians work 40 hours or less per week, according to the 2005 AVMA-Pfizer Business Practices Study, with 10 percent of veterinarians working less than 30 hours per week.
Some practitioners are more likely to work part time than others, though. Veterinarians who worked less than 30 hours per week were highly likely to be women, 77 percent; associates, 74 percent; and in companion animal practice, 88 percent.
Most female part-timers choose their hours because of their children, according to preliminary findings from the 2005 AVMA Veterinary Attitudes Study.
Dr. Karen Wheeler began working part time more than 15 years ago when she started having her three children.
"They kind of came boom, boom, boom," she said. "At one point, I had three kids under the age of 3."
For a while, she was working part time at three clinics to make time for activities such as her kids' field trips and her own writing.
"It was also important for me to keep practicing," Dr. Wheeler said. "Being part time, I feel like I'm contributing to veterinary medicine—but at the same time, I can be there for my kids."
She now works part time at just one clinic, Companion Animal Hospital in Eagan, Minn. Four female veterinarians run the practice, with only the owner working full time.
Dr. Wheeler's current schedule involves working three weekdays and every other Saturday. She and the other veterinarians make sure to share information with one another and the technicians, as well as to let clients know about their schedules.
"We try to keep our practice practice-driven and not doctor-driven," she said. "I think women are looking for a balance. And there are some naysayers who say it's bad for the profession, but I think it can work very well."
Dr. Wheeler thinks the profession must recognize that more and more veterinarians are women and will want to have families.
"People just have to figure out how to get that continuity," she said. "I think it's a very workable, doable thing."
Working part time has some tradeoffs for the individual, too. Dr. Wheeler said she wouldn't have the same benefits if her husband weren't working full time. Yet the family saved money on day care when her children were younger.
Dr. Wheeler's story is not uncommon among female veterinarians. According to the AVMA-Pfizer study, the percentage of female associates in companion animal medicine working less than 30 hours per week rose from 13 percent to 19 percent between 1998 and 2004.
Dr. Debra Nickelson, president and acting secretary of the Association for Women Veterinarians, has always worked full time. She said the growing ranks of female practice owners work more than full time. However, she thinks the profession is seeing more part-time veterinarians overall.
"I think there's a trend toward part-time practice for both men and women," Dr. Nickelson said.
When she began working in 1985, Dr. Nickelson said, part-time employment wasn't really an option. But she said working full time has been easier because she and her husband don't have kids. For other veterinarians, especially in two-income families, working part time has become an alternative.
"Veterinarians have realized they want more of a work-family balance," she said. "People want some flexibility."
Dr. Nickelson said part-time practice might actually help address the shortage of veterinarians because of that flexibility. She added that her association often deals with work-life balance, but the issue crosses gender lines, and her focus is more on promoting female leadership in the profession.
According to the AVMA-Pfizer study, the percentage of male associates working less than 30 hours per week rose from 4 percent to 7 percent between 1998 and 2004.
Most male part-timers fall into the category of semiretired, according to the Veterinary Attitudes Study.
Dr. Arthur Freeman, president of the American Association of Retired Veterinarians, said some practitioners transition to retirement by working as relief veterinarians for a day or two every week. Dr. Freeman, who is a former AVMA executive vice president and editor-in-chief, said he knows more veterinarian retirees who stay active by volunteering than by practicing.
Veterinarians work fewer hours on average as they age, according to the Veterinary Attitudes Study, but male veterinarians overall average 50.6 hours per week while female veterinarians average 44.8 hours per week.
Tracy Dowdy, a director on the board of the Association of Veterinary Practice Management Consultants and Advisors, said she mostly sees men working part time as they reach retirement. Her father, a veterinarian and practice owner, works three or four days a week.
But she also sees younger men placing more of an emphasis on work-life balance and boundaries, even if they aren't part-time practitioners.
Dowdy, who also owns Management Resource Group in Dallas, said part-time practitioners tend to work a few days a week and alternating Saturdays. They might also be on call, work nights and weekends, or do relief work. She consults with one emergency clinic that has a staff of female veterinarians who stay home during the day and work at night.
Dowdy said part-time practice doesn't preclude a good work ethic.
"The profession is having a hard time accepting it," she said. "But some of the research I did shows that when you give people options, and you give them life-work balance options, they're going to be more productive, you're going to have less turnover, and you're going to be more profitable."
Dowdy said solutions to the pitfalls of part-time practice include job sharing, bonding clients to the practice, and building an excellent team. She also suggested creating standards for care, service, communication, and medical records.
She advises practice owners to insist that part-time practitioners participate in staff meetings and strategic planning.
"I think the big thing is getting a commitment, a mental commitment, from that doctor regarding the overall vision of the hospital and the team," Dowdy said. "There are a lot of benefits to having highly committed part-time veterinarians on staff."
One benefit is flexibility for the practice as well as the practitioners. A practice with two part-time associates instead of one full-time veterinarian might be able to offer more convenient hours to clients, for example, or one associate might be able to work when the other is sick.
Companion animal medicine
Dr. Daniel Aja, president of the American Animal Hospital Association, said he thinks companion animal medicine is conducive to part-time practice because the clinic is usually a stationary facility. With an ambulatory practice, he said, veterinarians spend time traveling as well as working.
Dr. Aja and his wife own the Cherry Bend Animal Hospital in Traverse City, Mich., which employs a part-time practitioner and other part-time staff. Some staff come in early, some come in late, and one person works only on Saturdays. The practice previously employed a semiretired veterinarian who worked one day a week.
"You have to be flexible if you're the owner of a small animal facility," he said. "It's just a different ball game today. You have to tailor the environment to your workers, or you're going to have trouble hiring."
Dr. Aja said clinics have difficulty transitioning to part-time practice at first because veterinarians who have been working for 20 years think everyone should work from sunup to sundown. Nevertheless, he thinks that the profession overall has become more accepting of part-timers in the past 15 years.
Dr. Aja said his part-timers give his practice flexibility because he can rearrange the schedule without adding overtime. On the other hand, he said, clients sometimes bond with a veterinarian who isn't available as often.
"It does create sometimes a little bit of a hardship in that the client wants to see somebody, and that person is only available Fridays and Saturdays," he said. "The key is to be upfront and honest with the client.
"It's really important to bond the client to the entire practice because you have to be more flexible with scheduling."
Data from the National Commission on Veterinary Economic Issues suggest that part-time veterinarians are as productive as their full-time peers.
Data from December 2005 showed that owners and associates who worked less than 2,000 hours per year—about 40 hours per week—averaged more transactions and gross revenue per hour than those who worked more than 2,000 hours per year.
Howard Rubin, chief executive officer of the NCVEI, said part-time veterinarians allow a practice to grow without adding a whole employee at a time. He added that more practices are paying associates on a variable compensation plan instead of the traditional fixed basis to promote productivity.
Practices follow many models for part-time work, Rubin said. A practice might have four or five partners, none of whom works full time. He knows one owner whose practice consists of eight part-timers, equivalent to two full-time veterinarians.
On the other extreme, NCVEI data suggest that a small percentage of associates and as many as a tenth of owners work more than 3,000 hours per year—about 60 hours per week. And the AVMA-Pfizer study shows that companion animal veterinarians actually average 43 hours per workweek, while food animal and equine veterinarians work 50 hours per week.
So, though part-time practice is becoming increasingly common, it's nowhere near the norm in veterinary medicine.