Doing charitable work

Many practices have a strong connection with charities and community work. While these are worthwhile causes, does this improve the business side of a practice? By James Gallaway

Genuinely charitable work might seem rare in a world where corporate sponsorship of worthy causes often looks like nothing more than tokenistic arrangements of ‘brand synergy’.

But vets in Australia, among them Dr Michael Heath, co-owner of the East Bentleigh Vet Clinic in Melbourne, are challenging the cynicism that so badly afflicts the world of worthy causes. Dr Heath understands that a clinic must be commercially viable; nevertheless, his practice is heavily committed to providing services in the local community as well as internationally in India.

He concedes it’s the sort of thing that “does take time and can be a distraction”, but he is unequivocal about the benefits, among them, the positive impact it has on staff.

“It started, for me,” he says, “when my wife Lisa and I were travelling through India years back and we wanted to do something useful with our skills.”

During their trip, while visiting the southwestern village of Bylakuppe, Dr Heath recalls being confronted by the problem of rabid dogs. It’s a situation that has deadly consequences for the Indian population where 35 million stray dogs infected with rabies directly cause 20,000 human deaths each year.

“About one person dies every three hours,” he says. “I was saddened to hear of the death of a 13-year-old boy who had an open wound on his knee licked by his pet dog. It means that India is a place where children are encouraged to stay away from dogs. Anti-rabies vaccination and de-sexing work can change that.”

The clinic that Dr Heath subsequently established in response to the crisis is now involved with work that forms part of the ABC/Anti Rabies program, which seeks to sterilise and vaccinate 70 per cent of the dogs in the Dharamsala, in India’s north. In other parts of the country, in contrast, mass culling by the government is not very successful and is considered inhumane.

Dr Heath says that while Asia can be difficult, “it’s a situation that can be career changing for some”.

Back home, his clinic is involved with the local community, sponsoring local primary school children to read to dogs, who Dr Heath describes as a “very non-judgemental audience. This provides a PR benefit for our clinic but a number of our clients also donate in the thousands to help with the work in India.

“As a result of this, we were able to buy a digital X-ray unit as a replacement for wet chemistry, which saved money and produced vastly better results,” Dr Heath says. “We did a lot of surgery and trained Indian vets. It was exciting because we could help train 10 vets over two weeks and from that they could work on 20 dogs a day.”

Dr Heath says the clinic is now well-known for its charitable work; indeed this is often what draws new staff who “have sought us out because they have found out about this part of our practice”.

Great inspiration

Dr Sonia Thakur is a case in point. She had previously volunteered at Dharamsala Animal Rescue, and approached East Bentleigh when she heard about their work in India. She describes Dr Heath as someone whose “enthusiasm is one of a kind; he’s been a great inspiration to me”.

Dr Thakur believes we are spoiled in the west with diagnostics. Working in India taught her to rely on her own clinical judgement a lot more. “My surgery has improved,” she says, “and because the dogs stay with the clinic while they recover, you spend time watching them heal, which you don’t get [to do] here in general practice in Australia.”

She believes if more Australian vets had similar experiences, they would feel more motivated professionally. “I think, in some respects, we in the Western world narrow our circle of concern to just ourselves and our lives. When you go and work in a village, it widens your field of view. You learn to deal with adversity there; you learn acceptance and when you come back, you have a newfound sense of purpose.”

Joanne Chaplin, practice manager of Noah’s Crossing Veterinary Clinic north of Adelaide, was similarly inspired by her work with the Vietnam-based Wildlife at Risk organisation, and now encourages staff at her clinic to take part in work programs throughout Asia. “It’s a great way to empower staff. It’s not a walk in the park but people learn to think for themselves.”

Staff from Noah’s Crossing have worked specifically on the Free the Bears project with Asiatic black bears in the north of Laos in the Tat Kuang Si Park outside of Luang Prabang. One of the bears, Champa, was hydrocephalic because of an accumulation of cerebrospinal fluid in its brain. Under ordinary circumstances the treatment for this condition is euthanasia—but due to wildlife protection laws and Buddhist traditions, surgery is the preferred option.

Asiatic black bears are classified as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature because their habitat is threatened by deforestation and they are hunted for their paws and gall bladders. Consequently, many are kept in cages all over East Asia where their bile is farmed by catheter. Chaplin and her team built a surgery of four-by-five metres where—with six other vets and a BBC crew filming their efforts—they successfully operated on Champa.

Life-changing experience

Noah’s Crossing also works with its local community by sponsoring trophies at shows and maintaining relationships with breeding clubs where staff advise on health topics for particular breeds. “We build loyalty and sponsor people so they recommend us,” says Chaplin.

Even better, the clinic’s work in Asia means staff who volunteer receive an education they could never get by just staying at home. This experience makes them even better vets which in turn can only benefit the practice overall. Just so long as the thrill of working in exotic locales doesn’t compel staff to disappear too often!

“Over the past five years,” says Chaplin, “we’ve sent over three nurses and two vets—one of whom has gone back three times.”

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