Like other companies and industries around the world, COVID-19 has greatly impacted our organization. Working in the veterinary industry, we are fortunate to be surrounded on a daily basis by animals that bring joy to the lives of our clients. It also means that our hospital teams regularly deal with urgent medical cases, a roller coaster of emotions, and rough days, but no one was prepared for the fears and frustrations brought on by this pandemic.
However, as part of a network of hospitals across Canada, each one of our practices received the immediate support they needed to thrive under these unprecedented circumstances. This was done by establishing in-clinic safety precautions, communicating the ever-changing government policies, providing reassurance, as well as rewarding and inspiring our team members.
Establishing safety measures
Even before lockdown procedures were put in place by government agencies, we closed our head office in Woodbridge, Ontario. Since March, our departmental teams have been supporting hospitals remotely from their home offices.
Of course, our veterinarians, technicians, client care representatives and other in-clinic team members could not perform all of their work remotely. Well ahead of the curve, we enabled added safety measures so our hospitals could continue to provide essential services for patients. These safety procedures and tools included:
- More intensive sanitation guidelines
- A “closed waiting room” to limit the number of people inside the hospital
- Time between animal visits to allow for sanitation
- A limit on the number of staff working at any given shift to allow for physical distancing as much as possible
- Personal protective equipment given to frontline employees (e.g. gowns, gloves, masks, etc.)
- Plexiglass barriers and additional hand sanitizers in reception areas
- Floor decals and posters to remind everyone of physical distancing measures and proper hygiene
We also quickly launched and promoted online alternatives to ensure pet owners continued to have access to their pet’s essentials. These tools included:
- Telemedicine which was already available at several hospitals, but once this crisis began, our operations teams helped other practices across the network provide remote veterinary care through video, phone and chat messaging platforms.
- Online shopping was made more widely available by setting up individual virtual stores for almost all of our hospitals. Curbside pick-up, home delivery and auto ordering options are now offered so clients all over Canada can order their pet’s essentials from the safety of their homes.
With the guidance of our support teams in operations, marketing, and other departments, hospital team members were able to focus on caring for patients in need.
Navigating through diverse policies and jurisdictions
Throughout the past few months, our leadership team always referred to and followed the direction of veterinary associations and government bodies at the local, provincial and federal levels. With the guidance of Dr. Michelle Cutler, our Medical Director, we rolled out safety protocols according to the latest developments from public health agencies. Below is an excerpt from one of her regular emails to Practice Managers and team members across Canada.
“We have received great feedback from across the country — appreciation for the guidance and focus on health and safety, concerns for our ability to meet client and patient needs, specific scenarios that are unique to the layout of each hospital, etc. This feedback and diversity is what makes our network of clinics so strong.”
– Dr. Michelle Cutler, DVM
To help communicate the ever-changing processes, informative materials were custom designed and made available to all practices to share with their clients (e.g. social media infographics, email announcements, website updates, etc.).
Fostering physical and mental well-being
Equally important, was ensuring that our team members always had access to medical care while they worked in isolation. We used support systems already in place to remind teammates to prioritize their well-being. Through our pre-existing Employee Assistance Program, team members continued to have access to forums, articles, live info sessions, videos and other resources that encouraged them to actively engage in their mental and physical health.
Staying connected with each other was another priority. Aside from these services, it was important to stay in touch with each other despite our new work arrangements. Our head office teams continued to take part in regular planning, brainstorming, and training meetings via Zoom conferences to stay connected with each other and our hospital teams.
Receiving reassurance from leadership
Regular updates from direct managers and our executive leadership also fostered unity and helped keep the entire network well-informed. The following is an excerpt from an email Orin Litman, CEO, sent to team members across the country.
“Some of you have experienced increased levels of day-to-day activity and an expansion of your typical work hours and volumes. Others have seen much of their work disappear, but have jumped in and helped support other parts of the business that are struggling with the increased workload. . . I wanted to reach out to all of you primarily to thank you for the work, dedication, and resilience you have all shown over the last few weeks. . . our clients, patients, and your colleagues are thankful for the sacrifices you are all making.”
– Orin Litman, CEO
Rewarding our clinic employees
We believe that our hospital staff deserve added recognition for their commitment to their patients. To show appreciation for veterinarians, technicians, client care representatives and others who are working in the frontlines, we implemented a new Thank You Days program. Funded by VetStrategy and in effect during the most crucial parts of the pandemic, it enabled all employees who worked hospital hours during this period to earn additional paid time equivalent to 10% of their salary/wage. These extra dollars were later paid out as a bonus.
Inspiring each other
These initiatives, resources, action plans and new protocols provide the framework for us to begin overcoming this ongoing challenge. But above all, the spirit and creativity of our teams have been the driving force of our continued success. From the beginning of this pandemic, our team members were a constant source of inspiration. They showed unwavering bravery, compassion and professionalism towards our clients and each other.
“In particularly rough days, we make sure to take time to check in with each other and laugh together when we can. We have used music as a way to uplift our spirits and express our individuality. We have not always stood strong. But we have stood together. And that has meant all the difference for our clinic family and our community.”
– Testimonial from the team at Southpointe Pet Hospital (Calgary, AB)
Every day, our practices continue to overcome hurdles while remaining sources of energy and positivity. There have been countless stories of creative solutions, exemplary teamwork, implementation of online tools, and new initiatives taken to ensure patients continue receiving vital care.
Here are some examples of how our teams stepped up in the past few months:
- When an elderly client could not leave his house and had no one to ask for help, a team member at one of our hospitals volunteered to deliver pet food directly to his home.
- An RVT extended their availability for virtual nutrition consultations to the rest of their province. This way, patients outside of their hospital’s community could also benefit from their services.
- Several hospitals conducted patient exams by a viewing window so that despite the physical distance, clients felt like they were active participants in appointments.
- In solidarity with health care and veterinary industry workers all over the country, many of our teams displayed heart and paw prints on their windows. The eye-catching drawings reminded health care heroes of the support from their colleagues.
- As experts in their field, several of our DVMs and RVTs were featured in broadcast news programs and various local publications. They educated communities about COVID-19 misconceptions and shed light on their work as frontline health workers.
- Our Operations Staff and Regional Directors made themselves available to hospital teams at all hours of the day. They guided their teams through stressful situations and helped improve client communications and hospital protocols in response to the ever-changing situation. As leaders in their regions, they served as beacons of stability for the teams that turned to them for support.
As this situation continues to develop, we will adapt our support programs for our head office, field teams, hospitals, and patients. We have already created, for example, a return-to-office plan to ensure that safety is upheld once we can reopen our head office.
Although life will return to a new normal across the country, we will continue to be careful and protect each other as it is clear that COVID-19 will be with us for a while. As we reopen our hospitals according to various government policies, we continue to support our teams by providing assets and guidelines.
Returning to full services doesn’t mean “returning to normal” as it relates to team safety measures. Even so, by being part of a larger network with access to additional managerial support, we are optimistic that all VetStrategy hospitals will rebound from this pandemic. We know that together, our organization will come out of this crisis even stronger than before.
You were made to save animals. We take care of the rest.