Living with the alien associates

Living with the alien associates

This next generation of doctors isn't like us. And that's a good thing.
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Feb 01, 2009

You go about your business day after day. Then, while you're hunched over a sick patient with one of your associates, she utters some gibberish that proves what you'd suspected: She's from another planet.

In recent decades, a chasm has developed between associates and practice owners. Sure, we all work in the same communities and hospitals, but every so often you'll peer at your associate out of the corner of your eye and wonder if the new doctor is some alien spawn from the depths of space, maybe Planet Associate where nobody has to worry about profit and everybody goes home at 5 p.m. every day. Through interviews, questionnaires, and focus groups, my consulting company discovered what the old farts—err, experienced practice owners—find strange about their younger counterparts. This, then, is your field guide to the alien species known as the associate veterinarian.

Characteristics of the alien associate

First, these alien beings aren't as motivated by money as their bosses. Despite towering school loans, money just isn't a big factor in their lives. Unlike fiftysomething male practice owners, new associates are usually in dual-income marriages and may make less than their spouse. And many of them are OK with that.

Hand in hand with that reality is the fact that most associates are ignorant about finances, both personal and professional. This is often due to lack of interest, no business training in veterinary school, and employers who are reluctant to show them the books. Many of us started off ignorant about business, too, but we've attended the school of hard knocks and know a thing or two by now.

Many associates don't plan on owning a practice—ever. And when they do consider ownership, they're motivated more by providing the best care for patients than the appeal of an increased personal income.

Many associates have also delayed marriage or parenthood during school. This has implications for the workplace. Female associates may be dealing with pregnancies and splitting family responsibilities with another working spouse. Associates may see their veterinary job as more portable than their wife or husband's career, meaning that when their spouse lands a position elsewhere, they pack up and leave.

Here's more proof of associates' alien traits: They don't want to work more than 40 hours a week. While veteran practitioners may be used to 50- and 60-hour workweeks, taking calls on weekends, and working alone, new associates want to spread the work around. Associates know it's tiring, frustrating, and difficult to treat animals alone late at night and then try to be alert and intelligent the next day.

Take me to your leaders

The core difference between practice owners and associates is that associates see their job as a calling, and owners see it as a business. But there's a bridge to cross this chasm of values—a UFO to transport you to the galaxy of mutual understanding. This bridge is built on patient care and business understanding.

Because associates are focused primarily on patients, owners need to provide a practice environment that lets them provide excellent care without the burdens of worrying about the business details all the time. But associates need to learn the old truism, "Money is the root of all healing." All that work time, overhead, equipment, and supply cost comes out of somebody's pocket: yours, your associate's, or the client's.

So yes, associates may seem a little weird. They may be a little alien to your way of thinking. But it's because they don't want to grow up to be like you. While they learn that money is important, you should start reworking your old script. Instead of "I did it, so you have to, too," try "I did it, so you don't have to." Treat well these strange associates from another planet. They have come to take over the world.

Craig Woloshyn recently sold his practice to an associate and is now a consultant with Sun Dog Veterinary Consulting in Custer, S.D. Send questions or comments to

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