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In this time of practitioner shortage, locum vets are in hot demand, but there are questions of just how sustainable a profession really is that relies so much upon locums. By John Burfitt
In the 11 years since he graduated from vet school, Dr Campbell Costello has been a locum veterinarian for the past four, taking on gigs from one end of Australia to the other. After years of working on-staff at a variety of practices, Dr Costello admits he was on the brink of burning out from workplace stress. Instead, he became a locum vet, and has never looked back.
“Working as a locum vet is the first time in my career I’ve felt valued for my skills,” Dr Costello, currently on a new contract in the Northern Territory, says. “I felt jaded for a long time about the amount of work I was doing and what I was getting paid.
“I was told as a locum I would have no job or financial security, but the reality is I’ve been in constant work and am making double to three times what I was getting paid as a full-time vet.”
Due to the skills shortage gripping the profession, locum vets are in red hot demand. According to the 2018 Lincoln Institute’s Vet Shortage Think Tank report, nearly 90 per cent of veterinary business owners reported unprecedented difficulty in filling full- and part-time vacancies, with 41 per cent waiting longer than six months to fill positions.
Many practices turned to locums to fill vacant positions, but that well of talent is also drying up as many locums are booked up months in advance.
“The feedback we’re getting from clinics is it’s extremely difficult to source a locum vet,” Wendy Nathan, director of the Kookaburra Veterinary Employment, says. “The number of locum vets on our register seeking work has more than halved in the past 12 months.”
Which has resulted in many locum vets naming their own price. In the past, the average rate for a locum was $55 an hour. Now, according to veterinarian and accountant Dr Paolo Lencioni of APL Accountants, it can be double that figure.
“I know locums getting paid $100 to $110 per hour, in addition to having their accommodation and travel fees paid for,” he says. “I was dealing with a locum a while ago who is earning an annual wage of $160,000, and wants $200,000 this year from the clinic she spends most of the time working for. The owner and I had to work out if she would bring in enough work to cover such a wage. That’s how desperate some practices are for vets to work with them.”
Paying the price
With the skills shortage not looking to end until the lifting of pandemic restrictions on migrant vets, and with the increase in veterinary students graduating into the workforce still years away, the current situation looks unlikely to change for some time. But paying any price for a locum in order to fill a vacancy on the staff roster and meet the demands of clients is an unwise strategy, Dr Lencioni warns.
“That will not lead to profit and, at the end of the day, profit is what you need to focus on, not the number of patients you turn over,” he says. “Putting on expensive manpower just to service your growing books does not lead to profit. In fact, it could lead to lower profit margins and high turnover among the rest of your team.”
Dr Lencioni advises applying the following equation to such a scenario. “For every dollar you pay a locum, they need to bring in around four to five times that amount to make it worthwhile in terms of profit. But, profitability is also influenced by practice costs, which vary for every practice. What that means is veterinary fees are going to need to increase in order to keep our people, and as demand exceeds supply right now, prices have to go up as practices are burning out.”
Dr Gary Turnbull, one of the architects of the Lincoln Institute’s Vet Shortage Think Tank report and a practice owner of 20 years, says the current high cost of locums highlights two important factors about the state of the veterinary profession in 2021 that must be addressed by the Federal Government and professional veterinary bodies. “The skills shortage must be tackled as we are on the brink of a crisis,” he says.
“Too often, when you require additional veterinary resources to meet the demands of the pet owning public, you can’t get a locum, let alone a full-time staff member.
”There is much work to be done on this issue, and that’s one of the key areas the Lincoln Institute and a number of other bodies are focused on,” he adds.
The other aspect demanding attention is an increase in salaries. “We need a significant correction in professional fees to accommodate an increase in wages and salaries,” he says. “Locums deserve every dollar they get, but so too do full-time staff and we as a profession need to work out a way of making that feasible.”
Not for everyone
For all the benefits of higher wages, broader professional experience and the adventure of traveling around the country to work, Dr Campbell Costello admits working as a locum does not suit everyone. “Because I’m single and not tied down with other commitments, I can just pack a bag and travel across the country, which is simply not possible for a lot of people,” he says. “Then again, you could settle in an urban area like Brisbane and just locum your way around the one city, and I know a few people doing that.”
While he has plans in the future of establishing himself as a flying veterinarian—Dr Costello also has his pilot’s licence—he intends to remain as a locum for the time being. “There is such a massive demand, but being this transient is probably not sustainable forever,” he says. “I know however, I will always have locum work to fall back on, with the added bonus of being paid properly for the work I do.”