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24-hour practice in emergency actionWhen a WA graduate began his first job at a four-vet practice, he never dreamed he would end up running the hospital and managing a staff of 75. Kerryn Ramsey reports.

Renovating a 24-hour-a-day veterinary hospital can be tricky as there’s no downtime. The team that runs Vet24 in Balcatta, Perth, is well aware of this—after the hospital was converted into a 24-hour practice in 1990, they still managed to keep working during a major refurbishment of the practice.

Vet24’s principal veterinarian and managing partner Tony Leeflang fully understands what is involved with revitalising the hospital as he’s been working there for nearly 30 years. “It’s an ongoing process,” he says, smiling. “As soon as we complete one section, we start again—modernising and re-renovating to keep it fresh and functional.”

After Dr Leeflang completed his veterinary degree at Murdoch University in 1987, he applied for a job at Balcatta Veterinary Hospital. The practice had been in operation since 1974 and was run by three partners—Drs Graeme Thomson, Kerry Darragh and Ian Robertson. Each had qualified in a different state because WA’s Murdoch University didn’t offer a veterinary surgery degree until 1975.

“Back then, there were a lot of parvovirus outbreaks so a large part of the cash-flow was vaccinating dogs in the northern suburbs of Perth,” recalls Dr Leeflang. In the ’80s, the practice started to grow exponentially as Balcatta increased in population.

“In the ’90s, we had five vets and we were all overworked, rotating after-hours and on weekends. We concluded that we would be better served, from a lifestyle perspective, to pay people to do overnight and after-hours shifts. From there, it was a gradual progression to turn the hospital into a 24-hour practice.”

Growing into the job

Initially, the practice employed vets and nurses to run the practice 24 hours a day on weekends, mainly so the partners wouldn’t need to be on-call. However, within two years in 1992, they made the decision to run the practice 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

“That was the major change to the practice,” says Dr Leeflang who owns two-thirds of the practice. With the hospital expanding services, renovations were soon required. The partners purchased the building next door and in 2010, converted it into a spacious reception with several waiting areas, four consulting rooms, offices, staff areas and a seminar room. Once this was completed, the facilities from the original building were moved there in order to refurbish the original property.

Slow and steady

“When a hospital runs 24 hours a day, you’re tempted to do a renovation rush job on a weekend or shut down for a short period of time. Luckily, we have a few staff members whose partners are builders, electricians and tradespeople who offered us their advice and skill. While our renovations happen slowly, they also occur in such a way that they don’t affect the running of the practice.”

The most recent renovation was in 2014, which incorporated a state-of-the-art hospital and critical care unit, dental room, radiology and ultrasound wing, extended treatment rooms, two new surgery suites and owner visiting rooms.

Apart from the refurbishment, the business also rebranded: Balcatta Veterinary Hospital became Vet24. “The original name certainly intimated that it was a local practice servicing the community. Over time, people became aware that we were a 24-hour emergency centre,” says Dr Leeflang. “Our customers now come from a much wider area, so a rebranding and change of name were a better reflection of our business.”

Converting the hospital into a 24-hour operation also required new policies and procedures, covering issues such as security of staff and access of clients to the building after hours. A rotation of shifts was set up so three vets, three nurses and two receptionists work from 7–11pm, followed by one receptionist, two nurses and two vets from 11–3am. The low period is from 3–7am where just one vet and one nurse are required.

Learning to manage

With the practice flourishing, Dr Leeflang wanted to expand his knowledge on the business front. Rather than undertaking an MBA, he decided to go for a more hands-on approach.

Since he was a teen, he’s been a passionate hockey player, so it was a natural progression when he became a board member of Hockey WA in 2003. “It’s given me insight into the corporate world,” says the practitioner who’s now also on the national board of Hockey Australia, as well as completing a number of company director’s courses for his work with this organisation.

“I think one area where a lot of veterinary practices are lacking is good governance of all policies and procedures. It’s why corporate organisations are doing well—they bring those governance practices into all of their businesses.”

To keep the business running smoothly, Dr Leeflang put together an efficient management team and hired an American vet, Dr Alicia Faggella, who specialises in emergency and critical care. Dr Faggella also has a strong interest in practice management so she manages the veterinary team and oversees the nursing team. The hospital has a nursing manager, a client services manager, an IT manager and a hospital manager.

Dr Leeflang is looking at various practice options over the next five years. “At that stage, I may consider incorporating the practice and look at selling shares to some of the employed vets. There are many players in the market who are actively buying out practices, or we could just keep going with our current business model. I’m only 50 so I’ve still got a fair working life ahead of me. A lot can happen over the next 10 to 15 years.”

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