From 24 to 27 July, the South African Veterinary Association (SAVA) and the South African Society for Veterinary Epidemiology and Preventative Medicine (SASVEPM) held a congress at Birchwood Hotel and OR Tambo Conference Centre, Boksburg. The congress, now in its ninth year, invited veterinarians and industry specialists from all over the country to congregate at Birchwood’s impressive conference centre, which boasts over 60 venues. Approximately 500 delegates attended, as well as a further 150 exhibitors.
On the last day, all attendees gathered in the main dining hall for a plenary session. The topic of discussion was remuneration for vets. Are our South African vets earning enough? The simple answer is no.
The plenary session was opened with the topical thoughts and critical opinions of each of the selected panel members, followed by a live poll in which all panel members and delegates participated, and the session was then closed off by opening the floor to the audience for questions. The panel members chosen to speak during the plenary session were Dr Clive Marwick, Dr Anne Vos, Dr Ian Southern, Dr Melvyn Greenstein, Dr Japtha Mokoele and Dr Bradley Hodgson.
The live poll asked whether or not vets in South Africa are satisfied with their income, after all expenses are paid. The results followed promptly and a vast majority of participants voted that they were dissatisfied.
Rands and cents
It was stated that the average private practice veterinarian in South Africa with over 20 years of experience earns between R39,000 and R44,000 per month after expenses are paid. Considering the level of skill and decision-making required, we are vastly underpaying our vets. To put it in perspective, a benchmarking study was conducted in the UK and the average vet with only seven years of experience earns R90,000 per month.
The mutual agreement among the panel was that not enough money is being earned to pay vets and their staff working under them adequately. The solution? Push up the fees. It was agreed that fees are not there for client satisfaction, but rather to provide proper and fair income to the employees of the practice, and to have mentally healthy employees who are able to still live life outside of work. The fees should be set to create quality income and to help vets retain their expertise.
Many South African vets have gone overseas where money is better or they’ve gone into state service.
What does this mean for clients?
In order for vets to make a sustainable income, fees will need to be increased, which essentially means that the customer will be paying more than what they’re used to. Vets would prefer that clients opt for taking up pet insurance and healthcare plans for their animals. In the UK, an insurance provider offers a basic plan for £10 (their equivalent cost of three cups of coffee), which covers two free consultations per month, free vaccinations and deworming, and discounts on standard procedures such as sterilisation. There are existing insurance and pet healthcare providers in South Africa with affordable and customisable rates, which owners are encouraged to consider going forward. It was argued that the majority of pet owners in South Africa don’t consider pet insurance for the simple reason that consultation, vaccination and standard surgical procedure fees are so affordable that they can be paid out of their disposable income.
A looming problem among private practitioners is that they are not able to afford help. The average locum charges R4,000 per day, making it impossible for private practice to employ them because it’s not worth the turnover. As a result, the practice’s permanent vet is stuck having to work all hours and weekends, leaving very little time for mental and physical recovery and leisurely activities such as going out for a bite or spending time with family. This becomes detrimental to the mental wellbeing of vets, as many have already succumbed to serious depression and in more severe cases, suicide. Although locums charge more than the practice can expect to turn over, the panel stressed that vets should perceive the cost as buying themselves time.
Another issue in private practice that the panel identified is the reluctance to employ graduates. Practising vets aren’t willing to put in the time to mentor and train them. The panel also expressed a growing concern for the attitude that graduate vets seem to have towards their first job. Newly qualified vets don’t seem to be humble. They expect to walk into private practice and earn salaries upwards of R40,000. One of the panel members explained that while it’s all good and well of them to express their remuneration expectations, the graduate vets need to prove that they can then attract new clients and perform surgical procedures in a timely manner.
When it comes to employing help, the practice needs to consider what’s affordable per practice. Vets and staff should be paid based on what value they add to the practice. Everything should come down to negotiation between employer and employee.
Taking care of everyone
Increasing veterinary fees will provide for a more deserving living not only for our vets, but also for the support staff who help to keep the practice running on a daily basis. Vets are advised to structure their practice as a business, and to do so in such a manner that they are able to pay their staff competitive rates. In some areas of Gauteng, there are 20 to 25 private practices in a 5km radius, which means huge competition among veterinarians.
Rural practices struggle to afford additional vets and support staff, so hopefully by coming to some sort of standardised agreement across veterinary practices in South Africa, rural practices will be able to pay staff similarly to a practice in the city – thereby keeping rural practice sustainable.
The common feeling among the vets was that they don’t market themselves enough as medical professionals, which they absolutely are. Vets’ salaries should be comparable to those of human medical professionals. It’s important to take care of our vets with immediate effect, because otherwise how are we going to care for our future vets?
It was advised that the owner of the private practice should sit down and determine how much they would like to earn on a monthly basis to live comfortably, provide for their family and enjoy life. From there, they can structure fees accordingly.
Private practice consultation fees are approximately R500. So if, as a case in point, consultation fees are raised to R1,000, vets are sure to be met with resistance and may lose half their customers. However, the percentage increase in fees outweighs the percentage of clients seen. You may be seeing fewer clients but earning the same amount. Essentially, that’s fewer hours that vets are spending seeing patients and more time that could be spent on themselves, or training graduate vets. Clients are once again urged to take out pet insurance and healthcare plans so that these increased fees are not of direct concern.
The plenary session closed with a final clarification of how vets should structure their fees. Fees should not be based on the annual inflation rate, nor on matching competitors, but by working out each individual practice’s cost structure.
By: Charlotte Bastiaanse