There are many pathways to practice management, but practice managers tend to fall into one of two categories. Most commonly, at least in private practices, a person begins working at the practice as a veterinary assistant or receptionist and gradually, after years of experience, becomes indispensable enough that they are given the role of practice manager. Another pathway, possibly more common in corporate practices, is for someone with prior management experience in another field to enter veterinary practice management.
Regardless of their career pathway, each practice manager has unique strengths and weaknesses. Optimizing the role of the practice manager in your hospital requires thoughtfully identifying your manager’s gifts and areas of opportunity, then building on those strengths and filling in gaps.
Responsibilities of a veterinary practice manager
According a Practice Manager job description created by the Michigan Veterinary Medical Association, the responsibilities of a practice manager can be broken down into the following categories:
- Client relations
- Employee management
- Finance and accounting
- Facility and equipment maintenance
In many ways, the practice manager has responsibilities similar to a manager in any other field. They handle disgruntled clients, market the business in the community, hire and fire employees, train employees, and maintain the hospital finances. Additionally, they ensure that the practice’s facility and equipment are maintained, delegating maintenance tasks to employees or working with outside contractors.
However, there are unique challenges related to veterinary medicine. In many practices, the manager is not working exclusively in a management role. They might also fill in as a receptionist or a veterinary assistant/technician when needed, or help other employees when they are overwhelmed. This means that they not only need to keep their management skills current, they also need to have customer service and technical skills that are comparable to or exceeding those of other practice employees.
There’s no doubt about it: a veterinary practice manager wears many hats.
Conduct a skills inventory
If you’re looking to develop your practice manager’s abilities, begin with an honest inventory of your manager’s skills. This process can be simple or complex, depending on your preferences.
The Veterinary Hospital Manager’s Association’s (VHMA) Critical Competencies: A Guide for Veterinary Practice Management Professionals is a downloadable guide analyzing the job responsibilities and skills of a veterinary practice manager. If you’re a list person who wants a detailed rundown of responsibilities to evaluate and check off, this resource may be a good option for you.
Another option is to take a more personalized approach. Use the general responsibilities list above and think through how those responsibilities apply to your practice environment. Identify your practice manager’s strengths and weaknesses in client relations, marketing, employee management, finance/accounting, and facility/equipment maintenance.
After identifying your practice manager’s strengths and weaknesses, it’s time to make a plan. What are your practice manager’s top two strengths, and what are their top two areas of opportunity? Once you have identified a few key strengths and gaps, you can create a more concrete development plan.
Training opportunities for veterinary practice managers
One of the broadest, and most obvious, educational opportunities for veterinary practice managers is the Certified Veterinary Practice Manager program. This program relies upon a combination of work experience, college coursework, and management-related continuing education courses to gain management-related education. In addition to completing the experience and educational requirements, candidates need four references letters and a passing score on the certification exam in order to become certified. While this program is valuable and motivating for many learners, it certainly isn’t the only way to build skills as a veterinary practice manager.
Client relations, marketing, and employee management skills can be gained in a variety of ways. These skills are similar across all fields, meaning you don’t need veterinary-specific training. In addition to veterinary conferences and journals, look to books, podcasts, and leadership conferences for training opportunities. Your local Chamber of Commerce, Better Business Bureau, or Small Business Administration office may also offer learning opportunities for practice managers.
Gaining skills in finance and accounting may require a more concerted effort. Again, there is considerable overlap between veterinary medicine and other fields, so books and magazine articles can be helpful. However, learning and solidifying finance and accounting skills might require structured learning. Again, look to local business organizations for courses. It may also be helpful to review the list of courses and programs offered through your local community college.
One of the greatest challenges for many practice managers, however, is being responsible for a practice’s facility and equipment. This is an essential responsibility, but it can’t easily be learned through a textbook or a course. Many pieces of veterinary equipment come with a user manual and maintenance guide, allowing this skill to be delegated to any practice employee. Other tools, however, require more background knowledge. For example, you can’t optimize your practice software without a general understanding of the software’s specific features and how those features can help meet your practice’s needs. User-friendly software can reduce the learning curve, but general computer skills are essential for any practice manager.
Veterinary practice management is a field with many challenges, and a good practice manager should always be learning. Focus learning opportunities on areas that will benefit the practice, seeking to expand on your utilization of your practice manager’s strengths while filling in gaps in knowledge and skills. Optimizing the practice manager’s potential can have a significant impact on the day-to-day operation of your veterinary practice.