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locum veterinariansFinding adequate cover when veterinarians have planned holidays or require leave unexpectedly is one of the many challenges faced by practice owners and managers, Deepa Gopinath writes.

“It’s very satisfying to be available when vets you know get into trouble,” says Dr Sandy Read. “I have worked as a locum for a vet whose wife has gone into labour unexpectedly and a vet who has had a heart attack. The level of gratitude is humbling.”

Dr Read, a veterinarian who works exclusively as a locum, is based in north-west Sydney. As a mother, Dr Read is attracted to locum work as it allows her to set her own pay rates and choose when and where she works.

Finding adequate cover when veterinarians have planned holidays or require leave unexpectedly is one of the many challenges faced by practice owners and managers. In a profession where there is recognised difficulty in finding a work-life-balance, leading to reportedly high levels of burnout and mental health disorders, the value of being able to take a break cannot be overestimated. These factors may go some way towards explaining why locum veterinarians are in such high demand in Australia, and why working as a locum attracts almost double the hourly wage of experienced, permanent veterinarians.

Working as a locum

“Locum vets commonly earn anywhere between $45 and $60 per hour, plus superannuation,” explains Dr Mark Eagleton, of Vetlink Employment Service. Dr Eagleton, who has been involved with the recruitment of veterinary locums for 19 years, reports that there is a strong demand for locums that has persisted for several years. Locums who have more than two years of experience and those that are willing to travel interstate are particularly in demand. For new graduate veterinarians who are struggling to find work soon after graduation, it seems that overcoming the hurdle of gaining experience is vital to being able to join the pool of high-demand locums.

Working as a locum vet has both its benefits and challenges. For Dr Read, aside from the financial and lifestyle advantages, she values “meeting lots of interesting people and learning to do the same thing in many different ways.”

Another veterinarian, Dr L [who would prefer not to be identified] adds that she enjoys the flexibility of locum work, as well as “less obligation to take work issues and cases home.”

Work/life balance

The tendency to take work home surely has a negative effect on the stress levels and work/life balance of many veterinarians, and it seems that working as a locum may be a way of managing this.

And the downside? “Unknown staff dynamics and protocols, navigating unfamiliar computer systems, finding the things you need, a lack of equipment you use routinely, and clients not wanting to see you as you are new” are among the challenges Dr L faced as a locum. Dr Read identifies other struggles during her 15 years as a locum, such as “working in a clinic with poor levels of staff and patient welfare, and standards that I don’t agree with.” On an arguably more disturbing note, Dr Read has also regularly encountered veterinarians and nurses who seem to be affected by depression. Both Dr Read and Dr L obtain locum work predominantly via recommendations and word of mouth, although both have used locum agencies such as Vetlink Employment Service.

Finding locums

General manager of veterinary services for VetPartners, Dr Hester Raijmakers, sources locums for the group’s practices mainly by word of mouth, but uses agencies at times. “Many approach us directly, especially overseas vets, friends of existing staff members who are vets and previous employees who have left to go overseas or returning from maternity leave,” Dr Raijmakers explains.

Finding a locum hasn’t always been possible, and Dr Raijmakers admits that she has had to reduce the practice caseload in the past as a result of an inability to find cover. “There don’t seem to be enough good-quality, reliable locums available, especially at certain times of the year. Furthermore, it takes a while to build up relationships so when we have a good locum they are always in demand”.

“I have worked as a locum for a vet whose wife has gone into labour unexpectedly, and a vet who has had a heart attack. The level of gratitude is humbling.” Dr Sandy Read, locum.

So how should practices go about attracting good locums? For Dr L, it’s all about practices providing good support and competitive remuneration for the temp staff. Dr Read suggests that practices shouldn’t warn clientele that a locum will be working. “It tends to empty out the clinic,” she adds.

Finding work as a locum

From the other side of the equation, practices seek certain qualities in the locum veterinarians they hire. “Honesty, reliability, the ability to do the job and slot into any clinic setting are favourable. The locums who perform well tend to be those that are able to fit in with the hospital schedule as well as those who are personable and get on well with the permanent staff,” Dr Raijmakers explains. Dr Eagleton adds that practice managers value “good communication skills with clients and staff, the ability to generate income and not just ‘hold the fort’, and competence.”

Working as a locum veterinarian can be a great way to explore different areas of Australia cheaply, generate income between permanent positions or during further study and experience working in different practice situations, according to Dr Eagleton. However, what employers and locum veterinarians alike agree on is the need to outline working conditions and manage expectations from the outset.
Dr L, in particular, feels that using the word-of-mouth route and clear communication has prevented her from having any particularly negative experiences as a locum. Dr Eagleton warns that “It is unwise to commit to
a job until you clarify all the details of the job, including insurance cover.” He advises that locums should familiarise themselves with the practice’s protocols, such as vaccination regimes, computer systems, and any local diseases in a new region, prior to commencing a position.

As a very experienced locum, Dr Read has built her network of practices, and is able to enjoy the intangible benefits of her job, among which are “Nurses who light up the minute you walk in and scream ‘Thank God you’re here!’”


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