Dr. Andy Roark is a veterinarian, international speaker, and author. He is an award-winning columnist for DVM360, and has a regular column on Vetstreet.com. Dr. Roark’s popular Facebook page has over 50,000 fans, and his humorous educational videos have been viewed over 375,000 times. For more information about Dr. Roark, go to http://www.drandyroark.
Rebecca: Do you have any concerns about where we are, as a profession, right now?
Andy: I have a number of concerns. I think there’s something dangerous about these times in our profession. But, whenever you have volatile times like these, there are also huge opportunities because things are changing very rapidly. One thing that concerns me is the increasing number of veterinarians coming out of school. I say that as a vet. If I say that in front of a practice manager, he or she may say “More vets- bring them on!” But that’s what I mean, there’s a lot of opportunity. It all depends on where you are and how you position yourself.
We must be willing to innovate and adapt. Some people will innovate, and now is the time to do it. This period of rapid change presents a huge opportunity. I think some people will rise to the challenge. They’ll innovate, and they’ll change the way we practice veterinary medicine. Those people who innovate and adapt will have very successful careers. People who don’t innovate and adapt are going to have some really hard times.
Rebecca: Would you encourage someone to become a veterinarian now?
Andy: All I can do is encourage people to try to make a rational rather than an emotional decision of “Do I want to want to be a vet?” I encourage them to really look at the income, debt, and employment numbers. Some people will say yes, this is what I want to do and I understand the implications of walking this path I think you have to respect that. Hopefully, they’re not throwing their lives into turmoil by taking on debt that will cripple them forever. I think as long you know what you’re getting into, though, I will be supportive.
That being said, those people who choose veterinary school will have a huge burden to overcome. Most are going to have a lot of debt. They won’t be able to afford not to work, and that’s going to drive change in our profession. You are going to see those people innovating. They’ll be your house call veterinarians. They’ll do in-home hospice care. They’ll do vaccine trucks. They’ll develop new service pricing strategies, or they’ll leverage mobile technology in new ways to be more efficient. Necessity is the mother of invention, and the next generation of veterinarians is going to have to find a way to make it all work.
Rebecca: So you see big changes ahead?
Andy: The new veterinarians coming out are going to be a catalyst for rapid change. This can be wonderful because we may figure out how to really grow our profession and provide care in a way we never have before. That’s what I hope happens. However, I also worry that we won’t innovate. The financial aspects of our profession could really decline, and you have a huge amount of competition without innovation. I think that’s a huge danger. That’s what failure looks like for our profession.
Rebecca: It’s going to go one way or another, that’s for sure.
Andy: Exactly. It could be change that’s good for our profession, or it could be change that’s disastrous.
Rebecca: I know you’re not there yet, but what is one piece of advice you’d give to practice owners.
Andy: The basic advice I give to practice owners as an associate veterinarian is, “It starts and ends with you. Don’t kid yourself.”
Andy: I talk a lot to associate veterinarians, practice managers and technicians. One of their most common frustrations is a practice owner’s “Do as I say, not as I do” mentality. It just doesn’t work.
If you show up to work late and you say, “Well, I can be late. I’m the boss,” you’re not going to inspire your team. If you show up to work late, what you’re really saying is that behavior is okay, even if you tell everyone it’s not. If you give away services, what you’re saying is it’s okay to give away services. If you have rules, and then you break the rules, what you’re really saying is those rules are just guidelines.
Andy: That is the message you’re sending with your actions. I’m not a practice manager or a practice owner. However, I’ll tell you as someone who works in clinics and watches practice owners, you have great, great influence. You’ve got to walk the walk, and you’re the one in charge. No one can build a great culture without you. You can’t have a wonderful, happy practice around an owner who doesn’t live that lifestyle, support the mission, and live the principles of the practice’s core values.
You can be happy in those environments if you’re not the boss, and I think you can do a lot of good. Ultimately though, if you want to have a high-powered successful practice – the practice owner has to take ownership.
Rebecca: Absolutely, great advice. I love that. What’s your advice for associates, since you are one of those?
Andy: My biggest piece of advice for associates is take ownership of your career. This is not a holding pattern to become a practice owner. You have great power in controlling your own happiness and career as an associate.
Looking at resumes from new grads, I often see very generic resumes that seem designed to send the message, “I’m a competent veterinarian.” I’m going to tell you, that’s not enough. It’s not enough to be a competent veterinarian, and it’s not going to make you happy. As a veterinarian, you are special. You’re special in a number of ways. There are three key ways you, as an associate, are special:
Number one: your passion; number two: your expertise; and number three: your style.
Find your passion with questions like: Why am I a veterinarian? What do I care about? What do I love? What lights my fire? When you and I introduced ourselves in the beginning, you told me what you’re passionate about. There’s a million things you can look at – particularly your blog and your interest in coaching. That makes you special. That’s your passion. That’s a big part what you’re about. And we all have that. Each of us has that. Sometimes we have to stop and say, “What is it?” because we forget or we lose it along the way.
Andy: Number two, what is your expertise? What have you done that makes you special? You say, “Well, I’m a general practice vet.” Yes, but you have done 26 hours of continuing education on abdominal ultrasound in the last two years, right? That’s something special and powerful you bring. I met an associate veterinarian, and she was boarded in exotic animal and wildlife medicine. However, she didn’t have anything about it on her website. That’s a terrible waste. That’s an extreme example, because she’s boarded. However, the rest of us do that to some degree, too. We volunteer somewhere, or help the local zoo – things like that. That’s our expertise. If we don’t say anything about it, or make it front and center and say, “I’m going to run behind this expertise of mine, and emphasize it in my career ”, you’re hiding your light under a barrel.
So often we don’t highlight our personal expertise because we don’t want to talk about ourselves. The truth is, you’ve got to take ownership of your career. Look at your expertise. What are you good at? What do you know? What have you trained in? What do you continue to train in? You need to find a way to make that front and center, and part of where you’re going.
Andy: The last part is your style. Everyone is different. There are things you can say, places you will go, or groups that you interact and engage with that no one else can. It’s how you see the world.
How you interact with people is special and unique. Take your meaning, your passion, and what you’re about. Take your expertise. What did you learn? What do you do? What do you know? Then, take your style. It’s how you say it, how you do it, how you make people feel, and what types of people want to be around you.
You take all those things and bring them together. That’s where you should be going in your career. That’s your competitive edge over every other veterinarian around you. Those three things come together, and that’s what you’re about.
Too often we say, “Well, I’m a vet.” That’s not enough. You’re not just a vet. You’re a very special vet, and you need to realize that. Then you need to throw gasoline on that fire.
Rebecca: That’s right – especially since the demographics of the profession have changed so much. How do you differentiate the people you’re interviewing if they’re not doing that for themselves? Most people want to conform and not stand out, which is not what we need.
Andy: Vets shoot themselves in the foot when they interview for jobs all the time, because they just try to convince you they are competent. Honestly, people don’t want to see “a vet”. They want to see their vet.
Rebecca: Absolutely. I love that. I feel that way about my kids’ pediatrician. I wouldn’t just go see whoever happens to be in that day. I would drive across town to see my pediatrician if he moved.
Rebecca: What about advice for new grads? Does that kind of fall into the same category, or do you have anything to add to that as well?
Andy: As a new grad I would say you take that piece of advice for sure. The other thing I would say to new grads especially is that you have to find mentors. However, your idea of a mentor is probably antiquated. First of all, I want you to think about a mentor, and then throw out the age component of that idea. Age has nothing to do with it. I have mentors who are 12 years younger than me. You know why? Because I want to be really good at social media and web design. Most of the people who do the best work in this area are younger than me. As I do more writing and creating on the Internet, I look to those people. I say: “This is what I’m trying to do. What advice do you have for me? Hey, this is what happened, what do you think?”
Find people who are doing things you’re impressed with and who are willing to teach you. Peer mentors are powerful. If you are a recent grad, your best mentor could be another recent grad. That does not mean they have all the answers. They may be a complete doofus in 90% of things, but in the 10% you are really interested in, they are a genius. You need to talk their ear off.
Right out of school, I had friends calling me and talking to me about practice purchase or contracts. I couldn’t answer all the questions, necessarily. I would just say, “This is what I’ve heard, and this is what I think.” Then, I would point them to resources I was familiar with that might be useful. I’d say, “This is the person I would call.” That’s mentorship. I would turn around and ask them questions about how they’re doing different medical procedures or what is the internal medicine textbook I need to have on my shelf? That’s the type of advice that I’m talking about.
When I talk to a mentor, I’ll ask specific questions. “This is what I’m trying to do. Do you have any advice for me?” If you ask specific questions, you’ll generally get specific answers that will really help you go, grow and overcome obstacles. Also, actively listen. Lean in, take notes, and get this stuff down. It shows you care about what they’re saying.
So, the number one thing you do with a mentor is you talk to them. Ask these mentors what you want to know. Most are generally very happy to share their expertise. Take them to lunch. Remember – if you really want to take advantage of what they know, ask them specific questions. Be ready!
The other thing you do is watch your mentors. These people may not even know they are your mentors, but I’m looking at them that way. I think a lot of us watch other doctors the wrong way. Often we’ll look at a doctor and we’ll think, “This person does blood work and x-rays on every vomiting dog or cat that they see.” And then we think, “Wow, I should do blood work on every vomiting cat we see because that is what this doctor believes is good.”
I don’t think that’s the best way to approach these things. Too often we look at them and go, “That’s what they do so that’s what I’ll do.” And we stop way too early. What they do is not the question, and it’s not what’s interesting about that person. What’s interesting about that person is how they do it. if I do blood work on every vomiting patient I see, how do I explain that to the owners? How do I get them to go along with that? Why do I do that? What’s the reasoning behind it?”
A good lesson for young vets is to stand outside the exam room and listen to how the other doctors say things. Don’t mimic people, but learn from them. There are doctors who will say little things and you will think, “Man, that is such a great, clear, powerful way to say that”, and a light bulb goes off in your head. You can see the effect of this phrase in the pet owner’s face. They totally understand when the doctor says it that way. Take that expression or explaination and use it or modify it to your own style.
It is not what is your medical protocol as much is it is why is that the medical protocol. If you understand the why, you usually have something. If you just write down “blood work and x-rays on all vomiting cases,” you don’t have anything of value. In fact, you probably have a tool that will do great damage.
You have to understand the why and the how. Why do they do what they do, and how exactly do they do it? How do they say it? How do they present it? How do they make people understand? Also, how do they get the technicians on board to support them? Those are the things you’re looking for when you watch other doctors. Every single doctor can teach you something if you approach it that way. Even the bad ones will teach you how not to do things because you’ll see the pet owner’s body language change. They cross their arms. They lean back. Their face tightens. “She blew it,” you’ll think. “She just did it wrong.” And now you’ll say, “I’m going to do it very differently.”
Find a mentor and talk to them. Ask specific questions about where you’re going, so they can really help you in a short amount of time. Watch them, and not just to see what they do. You must understand why and how they do it.
Rebecca: That’s awesome. That’s great advice and so true. What about online mentors?
Andy: Absolutely. That’s the beautiful thing about where we are today. I meet a lot of people on Twitter. I can see what they’re doing, and I’m impressed with them. So, I reach out and say hello. It never hurts to know somebody. It’s not a big deal to reach out and talk to people and say, “I admire what you do. I really like that blog post that you wrote.” Or “Can I ask you a question about what you wrote?” That’s easy to do, and people are flattered.
But again, I’m not looking at them as a mentor like “is this person a pinnacle of greatness?” No one is. We’re all human. We’re all flawed. But I look and try to identify the things this person’s really good at, and I ask them questions that will help me accomplish my goals and get where I want to go.
Rebecca: Wonderful advice. What do you think veterinary medicine will be like in ten years?
Andy: I think we’re coming to a period of intense natural selection. What that means is the economy’s getting better, which is great, but I don’t think that necessarily means we as veterinarians are getting better at what we’re doing. Again, I go back to what I was saying about more vets coming into the market. I think that selection pressure is going to increase, to use a term in evolution. So generally, when selection pressure increases, many will go extinct while others adapt.
We’re going to enter a period of rapid adaptation. So I can’t really actually say what it’s going to look like in ten years, but I will say it’s going to be very different from now. One thing that I can say, that I really deeply believe, is that in ten years, our communication with clients outside the clinic is going to radically change. We are going to get much more adept at communicating with them.
To me, communication means social media. It means marketing. It means emailing people. It means writing blogs. It means text messaging. It means booking appointments way in advance. The way we communicate with clients, educate them, and get them back into the hospital, that is going to change, because we sat back on our haunches for a long time.
As competition increases, you’re going to find young, hungry, tech- savvy vets. They’re going to be coming out of school and looking to change the way medicine is practiced so they can survive. If you don’t adapt, I’m afraid they’re going to eat you alive. They will be talking to your clients if you’re not talking to them.
I think that’s one point where you’re going to see rapid evolution. It’s almost like ten years ago few practices had email addresses or even websites. So ten years from now, I think it’s going to be radically different. We may see entirely new business models by that time. It’s going to change quickly. The big thing is I want the change to come from veterinarians, not from outside of the veterinary profession. Are we going to falter, or are we going to evolve and hold our place in the decision-making process and remain highly relevant to pet owners? That’s the question.
Rebecca: Yeah, no kidding. It’s funny, we started texting more with owners in the last couple of years and it’s amazing. They love it. They’ll send us a picture of the pet’s surgical wound to make sure all is as expected, and we having them feeling better in 30 seconds or less!
Andy: They love it.
Rebecca: I’d much rather do that, than have a conversation when they’re trying to describe something to me that I can’t see.
Andy: We have enormous room for growth there, and we need to have the desire and the expertise to make that happen. That’s one area I can look at right now and say there is an enormous potential for growth.
Rebecca: Thanks so much for giving us your valuable time and insight. You are a real inspiration!