Although corporate veterinary groups are sometimes seen as ‘big business’, what advantages do they offer? As Dr Magdoline Awad steps in as the new chief veterinary officer at Greencross Vets, we investigate what the big guys can do to help. By Frank Leggett
This month, Dr Magdoline Awad, a veterinarian with an outstanding record in not-for-profit service, was appointed as chief veterinary officer at Greencross Vets. She comes to the position at a time when corporate veterinary groups are striving to help the profession thrive and grow.
“I love our profession and love seeing veterinarians reach their full potential,” says Dr Awad. “In my role, I particularly want to assist new grads with mentorship and support so they can become the best they can be. Greencross wants to ensure we have dedicated, well-trained and committed staff. The best way to achieve that goal is to really look after our people.
“I’m coming into my role with a fresh mind. I’ve never worked for a veterinary corporate group before and while structure and organisation can be flexible, the one essential constant is to engage and support your people. The most important thing is to provide a great place to work with opportunities for staff to grow and learn.”
The RSPCA years
Dr Awad began her career working for a private practice in the Sydney suburb of Ramsgate before moving to the RSPCA a year later. She stayed with the RSPCA for the next 19 years.
“It was a heavy and varied case load but it was also a great learning environment,” recalls Dr Awad. “I would work my cases while taking the opportunity to learn from the eight to 10 veterinarians who were always on site.”
She worked as a staff veterinarian at the RSPCA until becoming deputy chief veterinarian in 2003. Five years later, she was made chief veterinarian for New South Wales RSPCA, holding that role until 2015.
Working at the RSPCA was confronting and emotionally draining but there were plenty of positive moments, too. “We saw the very worst of animal cruelty cases but they were balanced out by all the positive cases we saw and treated,” Dr Awad recalls.
In 2015, Dr Awad joined PetSure as chief veterinary officer. Pet insurance was an area where she could see many positive outcomes.
“I felt that insurance was a great way forward for animal welfare and for veterinary wellbeing,” she says. “I worked with a team that liaised with vets, vet nurses and practice managers, looking at how pet insurance could improve their working lives and the welfare outcomes for pets. We closed down paper claims and adopted an online process. We also introduced a system where clients only pay the gap in a similar way as HICAPS.”
Dr Awad begins her new role at Greencross at a time when the profession is finally dealing with a number of different challenges—everything from mental health to staff culture. Greencross is leading the change, not only providing easy access to continuing professional development (CPD), but also improving flexibility in the workplace as a way to increase longevity in the veterinary profession.
“Greencross is very proactive and well-placed to quickly and efficiently address any problems that may arise,” says Dr Awad. “Mental health is an important issue in our profession, and I was very impressed that Greencross aims to have at least one person in every practice trained as a mental first aid officer.”
Unfortunately, when animal welfare is compromised because of financial issues, this can also negatively affect veterinarians. It’s distressing when sub-optimal treatment is the only choice due to financial constraints. Even worse, economic euthanasia is another known cause of moral distress among veterinary staff.
The challenge of supporting and engaging staff is an issue being actively addressed by most corporate organisations. The resources at their disposal means they are often more engaged and quicker to respond than smaller, independent practices.
Julie Harris, chief people officer at VetPartners, knows how effective the corporate response can be. “We have people on the ground that help our teams every day,” she says. “Whether it’s an HR issue, a recruitment problem, conflict or pressure, we have people who are there to assist the teams in our clinics—they don’t have to take on all the responsibility by themselves. I think that’s one of the main reasons a lot of owners join VetPartners—our support framework.”
VetPartners is also very proactive in regard to mental health. Mental health first aid accreditation and wellness resources are available to everyone on their intranet and learning platforms.
Any team members facing mental health issues are actively encouraged to speak up. They can be assured that their issues will be heard and dealt with appropriately.
“While the stigma attached to mental health is decreasing, it’s still there,” says Harris. “Thankfully, the younger clinical leaders are much more open to talking than some of our older veterinarians. A lot of our leadership programs are now about mindset, resilience, wellbeing and exercise. Likewise, if we were really worried about someone, we would reach out and find specific help that’s relevant to them.”
National Veterinary Care (NVC) has over 100 practices spread across the eastern seaboard of Australia and in New Zealand. Gillian Porter, general manager of human resources at NVC, says there is one area that staff enthusiastically embrace.
“NVC is committed to providing high-quality continuing education for our staff. Our CEO, Tomas Steenackers, knew there was a real shortage of education opportunities for vets and nurses after they finish their degree. At our veterinary training centres, team members can undertake CPD in a range of subjects including behaviour, pathology, nutrition, imaging and surgery. It’s very hands-on training in a controlled environment.”
Porter is also pleased to see an improvement in attitude towards mental health issues. “When I started at NVC four years ago, we had an employee assistance program but the utilisation rate was very low. These days, it’s well utilised and everyone’s comfortable talking about it and recommending it. Speaking to a counsellor or a psychologist can be helpful in myriad ways.”
VetPartners run their CPD courses a little differently than most corporates. Each clinic controls their own CPD with their own budget. “We don’t dictate any training,” says Harris. “Each clinic has full autonomy to use their budget in whatever way they choose.”
Their new grad program provides core education and wellness coaches who speak to different subgroups of people. “We’re a fairly new company—almost four years old—and getting our HR processes right is paramount to us. This year we won the HR award for Australian HR Team of the Year (>1,000 employees). We firmly believe this demonstrates our dedication and people focus.”
Harris feels very positive about the industry and sees great potential in the future leaders of the veterinary profession. “Additionally, we have plenty of vets, nurses and practice managers with great wisdom, knowledge and experience. When we connect the dots between historical experience, the amazing knowledge of our teams, and our new leaders of the future, that’s where the magic happens at VetPartners.”
When corporates engage their staff with leadership and personal development programs, the impact can be powerful and long-lasting. The leadership programs at NVC, for example, are for its clinic leaders, practice managers and lead vets. The programs cover subjects such as financial acumen, managing teams, creating good cultures, HR and marketing.
“We’ve also introduced an online training centre where our team members have access to a database of about 4000 different online training workshops,” says Porter. “These can be as diverse as workplace health and safety, photography and wellness.”
Change for the better
Traditionally, the veterinary industry required long working days and offered little in the way of flexibility. This invariably led to burnout among staff and is, to a large degree, the reason the profession suffers from such a high attrition rate. With corporations willing to think outside the box and not simply accepting existing work practices, there is hope that good staff will be retained longer.
“Not only can corporate entities like NVC affect change, we also have an obligation to do so,” says Porter. “We’re well placed to offer more flexibility, particularly when a group of clinics can support each other. Whereas it can be nearly impossible for a single vet clinic to organise leave, we can create a situation where a few clinics with multiple vets can lean on each other.”
Accentuate the positive
Above all, Dr Awad loves the collaborative and engaging nature of the profession. “I was at the Centre for Veterinary Education recently for a veterinary wellbeing seminar with over 200 vets and vet nurses attending. It was such a positive experience. I would like us to be even more collegiate while continuing to treat each other with kindness. By supporting each other and freely sharing information, we will have a fantastic profession in the future.
“With Greencross acquiring a large number of animal referral hospitals and animal emergency centres, this provides a natural career pathway for vets and nurses in the organisation. I am actively fostering that wonderful career opportunity for our staff.
“What I find really attractive about my role at Greencross is the large number of vets and vet nurses working for the organisation. If I can help Greencross engage their staff while providing career pathways, support and mentorship to new grads and experienced vets, I really believe it’s a win for the whole profession.”