Why the Traditional Team Model Doesn’t Work for Veterinary Practices

by Dr. Stacee Santi

Last October my Mom collapsed.  We were all shocked and worried sick as she was transported to 4 hours away to Albuquerque during the middle of the night while my Dad followed the ambulance in his car sucking down 5 Hour Energy drinks.  They thought it was her heart, her blood pressure medicine, her sciatica.  But it was none of that….it was a random abscess in her left stifle joint resulting in septic shock.

It was a wake up call to me to try to figure out what to do with myself.  I was practicing medicine and managing a 4 doctor, 7 day hospital and never being able to get home at a reasonable time which was straining any constructive relationships or time for myself.  I had a wonderful, majorly hard working team, a top notch hospital manager and wonderful clients.  So why were the last 5 years so hard?  Because the current team model doesn’t work anymore.

I graduated CSU in 1996 and it was the second year that they forced the students to “track”.  They took a risk and abandoned the “general” education where students were taught everything there is to know about dogs, cats, horses, cows, swine and small ruminants like goats and llamas.  BECAUSE….it is too much to learn and CSU realized that it might be better to be really good at a few things rather than mediocre at a bunch of things. 

People were panicked…Would they pass their boards?  Would they be able to get a job?  My biggest concern if I tracked small animal:  What would I do if I stumbled upon a cow in a field that needed help calving?  I knew of this risk as I had recently seen City Slickers.

As it turned out the class of 1996 did quite well.  We focused on our chosen favorite species and passed our boards. We got jobs and now 20 years later we have turned out some pretty major influencers from AAHA presidents and board members, to Sea World veterinarians, to CSU faculty, practice consultants and hard working veterinarians all over the world.

With all the current discussion about well being, burnout, compassion fatigue, it boils down to what CSU knew in 1996….it’s just too much for the traditional “doctor + manager” 2 person leadership team to handle.  It is time we start to explore options in organizational structure.  And who will benefit?  Our patients and more importantly, our profession.

After I got back from my 6 week leave to care for my Mom, who recovered but has a permanent reminder of the event in the form of a chronic left hind lameness, I decided it was time for a change.  I met with my doctors and we sat down and talked.  I explained I was going to be able to handle it anymore and kindly offered up my amazing job to the first taker.  But no one jumped out of their seat with enthusiasm.  I believe the general consensus was “No freaking way” but we don’t need to go into all of that.

The solution:  Collaborative Leadership.  We divided the leadership jobs with each person agreeing to take on the tasks they didn’t hate.  As it turns out, each person was able to bring amazing talents to the table that were particularly compatible with certain jobs.  Love science and cells…..great, you’ll take on new product evaluation.  Love analytics and organization….great, you’ll take on the doctor schedule and vacation requests.  Love chatting with the staff and knowing the 411….great, you’ll take on the staff reviews along with the HM.  This was the beginning of a new way of doing things and a couple of things happened.  I didn’t feel so burdened with all the responsibilities of running a multimillion dollar company and my new leadership team felt empowered and engaged. 

Apparently your employees don’t really like being told what to do in the first place.  Apparently your employees are grown adults with some very good morals and ethics that when given some freedom, can make your life insanely better than it is now. It turns into a new job of hiring the right people that believe in the mission and trusting the process is the key that will unlock a new path for leadership that is desperately necessary in our profession. 

And, after 20 years I haven’t yet needed to rescue a calf in a neighbor’s pasture but as I take my evening walks each night, I keep my eye open for Norman.


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