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Veterinary care 24/7
  1. Robert Dawson


Last year, Highcroft Veterinary Group decided that it was time to employ dedicated overnight vets to provide out-of-hours cover to its clients. Robert Dawson, a partner in the group, explains more

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IN common with many other small animal practices, Highcroft Veterinary Group has grown considerably over the past decade to meet the level of care expected by its clients. As a busy veterinary hospital we have a large number of hospitalised patients requiring overnight care. Unless we moved these patients to an out-of-hours service provider every night, we would still need a veterinary surgeon available at night to look after them. We also have excellent critical care facilities and run veterinary ambulances, allowing for essential out-of-hours visits.

Night vets are expected to take over the care of all in-patients as well as deal with emergency cases

We therefore decided to employ dedicated overnight vets at the practice last year, following the completion of a large extension to our hospital. This coincided with taking on the on-call work from neighbouring practices and the launch of Highcroft Veterinary Referrals, which meant that we were starting to take surgical referrals. The amount of overnight work required to give adequate care to the in-patients, and to cope with the increased number of emergency calls coming in from other practices, meant that we could no longer ask our day vets to cover overnight work.

There was obviously a large financial commitment in this transition. The classic scenario is that two vets are employed to do a one-week-on, one-week-off rota, and the salary for each overnight vet is comparable to that of an experienced full-time day vet. Once the cost of covering holidays is taken into account, the total cost to the practice is over £100,000 per year. When combined with the salaries for an overnight VN, nursing auxiliary and cleaner, who all work the shift with the duty vet, the overall staffing cost is considerably higher than this.

Overnight vets

The overnight vets do a 13-hour shift, from 20.00 to 09.00, allowing a short handover period to and from the day vets. During their shift, night vets are expected to take over the care for all the in-patients, including contacting the owners of each patient in the morning to update them on their pet's situation. In addition, they deal with any emergency cases that arise during the night and are expected to deal with any life-threatening problems, as well as organising any treatment that may be required by the day staff the following day. While there is often time for some sleep, and overnight accommodation is provided, the overnight vets are expected to work right through the night if necessary to provide the hospital patients with the care they need.

There are many attractions to the position of an overnight vet, but the right vet for the job must be experienced and competent to cope with any, and all, emergency situations. This does not mean that they have to be an omnicompetent ‘supervet’ who can operate on any case, but it does mean that they need to be able to give suitable levels of care to stabilise patients adequately so that they can receive further treatment as needed by other specialist vets. They must also be able to identify and deal with cases that need immediate surgery.

The attractions start with the obvious: the vets get every other week off. There are others too; there are no boosters, nail clipping or anal glands to empty. There is an opportunity to see more genuine emergencies than you would as a day vet. You get to work at a time when the normally bustling hospital is quiet and uncrowded. You work with the same small group of colleagues every day, allowing a chance to build close working relationships. You never have to fight to use equipment or theatres, and you are able to follow longer-term in-patients throughout their treatment. Obviously, night work would not suit everyone and some would not adapt well to changing sleep patterns, but for the right person it can be a really rewarding job, and one that allows them to pursue other interests in a way that would not be possible with a more conventional working pattern.

Given the benefits, we were surprised at the level of interest we received in the position when we advertised it. Normally, we expect a pretty hefty pile of CVs when we advertise a new veterinary position, but we had only a few applicants. Luckily, these included some excellent candidates and our overnight service is proving successful.

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