Low pay, and compassion fatigue and burnout, as well as lack of recognition and career advancement, remain ongoing concerns in the veterinary technology profession. That’s according to results from the 2016 National Association of Veterinary Technicians in America survey. Further, technicians identified office dynamics and communication (40 percent), client noncompliance (39 percent), and lack of resources within the clinic (11 percent) as the greatest challenges they face in practice.
According to the survey’s authors, some of these challenges have contributed to technicians leaving the profession. When asked how satisfied technicians were in their position, about half (51 percent) said they are very satisfied with their career and will stay in veterinary technology. A quarter of respondents have worked for their current employer for one to three years. Over half (56.7 percent) had changed their place of employment within the first five years.
“As of 2016, there is a known shortage of credentialed veterinary technicians, and the difficulty in finding qualified personnel to fill positions is a major complaint by veterinary practices. Measures to continue driving interest in the field is needed. Attracting and retaining qualified individuals is critical to the growth of the profession,” according to authors of the survey, which is conducted every four or five years to give a glimpse of the state of technicians in practice. It was sent out earlier this year and received 2,790 responses; NAVTA released the results in August.
Rebecca Rose, NAVTA president, owns and serves as president of Catalyst Veterinary Practice Consultants, which focuses on career development, hospital management, and professional growth. She says the problem isn’t a shortage of technicians but one of team retention, lack of career growth within veterinary practices, and hospitals generally being undermanaged.
“When I walk in veterinary practices, the first thing they ask is, ‘Where do I find vet techs?’ That’s truly the million-dollar question,” and yet, she adds, technicians, on average, are being paid $14 to $16 an hour. According to NAVTA’s survey, most technicians work 30-40 hours per week (43 percent) followed by 40-50 hours per week (37.6 percent). Full-time technicians report a salary between $15-20 per hour (44 percent), or $31,200 to $41,600 for an annual salary at 40 hours a week, whereas part-time technicians indicate $14-16 per hour (29 percent), or $14,560 to $16,640 for an annual salary at 20 hours a week.
“In comparison, the poverty line in the United States for a family of four is $24,300. Well-paid veterinary technicians are only slightly above the poverty line, once income taxes are considered,” according to the survey’s authors.
Rose agrees that low salaries aren’t the sole cause of the issue. She adds that turnover can also result when technicians don’t feel they are part of a whole, working for a common purpose, or don’t enjoy working with their co-workers. Recognition for individual efforts can also go a long way, Rose says, as can having a competitive benefits package.
More than 80 percent of respondents to the NAVTA survey said they receive paid vacation and discounted pet care as a benefit. Further, 70 percent have health insurance, continuing education–associated expense reimbursements, and paid holidays. Sixty percent have a retirement plan to which they can contribute as well as paid sick days. And 50 percent receive dental health insurance and time off for continuing education. Less than 40 percent receive paid licensing fees, life insurance, disability insurance, paid association membership fees, or a uniform allowance.
It’s no surprise, then, Rose said, that the veterinary industry has twice the rate of turnover as comparable industries. She says, oftentimes, hospital managers don’t even know their turnover rate. For those who do know, a few practices average a 15 percent turnover rate, but others may see a rate from 33 to 50 percent. Earlier this year, the eighth edition of the American Animal Hospital Association’s Compensation and Benefits book reported a mean practice turnover of 21 percent overall. Respondents reported a 22 percent turnover rate for veterinary technicians and a 31 percent turnover rate for other staff.
“It’s stressful, costly, and takes so much time to replace team members. And when it’s so frequent like that, it’s difficult to find your grove and develop a cohesive team. Turnover is a huge issue and something our community needs to look at,” Rose said.
Of those who answered in the NAVTA survey that they are not currently working in practice, approximately 45 percent indicate they have left the veterinary profession. Top reasons for leaving practice include low pay (38 percent), lack of respect from the employer (20 percent), and burnout (14 percent). But veterinary technicians aren’t the only ones to feel the negative effects when practices can’t retain them.
A 2010 study in JAVMA looked at whether a relationship existed between veterinary practice revenue and characteristics of veterinary technicians, including education level and qualifications. Results showed that the typical veterinarian’s gross income increased by $93,311 for each additional credentialed veterinarian technician per veterinarian in the practice (J Am Vet Med 2010;236:846). This same phenomenon was not seen with noncredentialed technicians; rather, there was no meaningful revenue increase with noncredentialed technicians. The study attributed the increase in revenue to perhaps freeing up veterinarians’ time by allowing qualified technicians to complete tasks traditionally requiring veterinarian oversight.
The recent NAVTA survey showed that animal nursing, anesthesia, client communication, and client education are the top functions of veterinary technicians in 2016, almost identical to 2011 results.
Technicians were asked to identify areas that they were responsible for when it comes to educating clients. Most reported talking with clients regarding medication administration (79 percent), followed by correct care for patients (71 percent), treatment protocols (64 percent), and pain management (56 percent). When asked to identify how comfortable they were educating clients on those topics, respondents indicated they are most comfortable educating clients on medication administration, while least comfortable topics included nutrition, diabetes management, and hospice care.
When asked how strongly their opinions were considered in practice, a majority said their opinion counts when it comes to equipment (98 percent), pain management protocols (60 percent), and anesthetic protocols (nearly 60 percent). Nursing care was far behind at 8 percent, followed by management topics at 5 percent.
Over half of respondents indicated they did not understand the phrase “forward booking appointments,” and 37 percent did not forward book appointments at all. Of those that did, 59 percent forward booked medical progress examinations, 51 percent did so for boosters, and 42 percent did so for annual preventive health care exams. Relatedly, 71 percent of respondents said their practices did not offer wellness plans for patients.
Technicians estimated they made recommendations to clients 60 percent of the time and thought 69 percent of clients accept them “most” of the time, 28 percent of clients follow recommendations “occasionally,” and 3 percent of clients “always” follow recommendations. For those who indicated clients did not always accept recommendations, 38 percent thought price was the barrier “most” of the time, 52 percent said “occasionally,” and 5 percent said price is “always” an issue.
Five to 10 minutes is about how much time 29 percent of respondents said they spent with clients in the examination room, followed by 27 percent who spent 10-15 minutes with clients. Fifteen percent spent more than 15 minutes with clients.
Being that compassion fatigue was identified as a factor that negatively impacts veterinary technicians, respondents were asked whether their practice discussed compassion fatigue with the team. Seventy percent of respondents indicated that the topic was discussed; however, only 23 percent of practices offered support for team members experiencing compassion fatigue. Almost 2 percent said a fellow co-worker has committed suicide because of compassion fatigue, yet, only 3 percent of those respondents had grief counseling provided to the team.
“Whole team wellness is an initiative being explored by many organizations, including the AVMA. To better serve the professionals of the veterinary team, tools and support networks encompassing compassion fatigue should be implemented into practices immediately,” the survey’s authors state.
Unchanged from 2011-16, the most fulfilling aspects of the job are: caring for animals in the best way possible, making a difference in a pet’s life, assisting in the diagnosis, and staying current on the science and technology of medicine. The least fulfilling aspect indicated was the lack of support from management.
To help deliver better quality care to clients, respondents indicated that additional staff members would help (45 percent), followed by increased client compliance (43 percent). Thirty-two percent would like more CE opportunities, and 23 percent would like more advanced diagnostic tools to use in the practice.