Finding Freedom in Veterinary Medicine, by Caroline Brookfield26 May 2019
Oxilia is proud to partner with Dr. Caroline Brookfield, a locum veterinarian for 21 years, for a series of blog articles that will center on giving veterinary professionals some insights on the locum life and offer them a new perspective on their career in animal health.
A seeker of the unconventional, Dr. Brookfield is passionate about communication, and has been developing diverse skills over the years through veterinary medicine, entrepreneurship and artistic endeavor. In this article, find out her view on how one can start as a locum, where one should start, and what the locum lifestyle is all about. To all veterinarians and technicians out there wondering if the locum life is a viable option or not, this is for you!
I have always been a bit restless. In fact, one of the main reasons that I chose Veterinary Medicine was the ample opportunity for new challenges. I started off with some full-time clinic jobs early in my career. I always yearned for more control, less drama, vacations without permission, and a flexible schedule. I had a hard time being an employee, but I had no desire to become a practice owner.
After leaving Guelph upon graduation in 1997, I moved to Florida for a few years before a big backpacking trip to South-East Asia. On my return, I decided to return to the Canadian lifestyle, and planned to settle in Calgary. I had spent a summer externship position at the Calgary Zoo and loved the city, mountains and dry climate. First, I needed some cash, fast. After an intense 6-week stint at a Florida ER, working almost every day straight and entire weekends at a time (ER shifts in those days!) I drove up to Calgary, with a sense of naïve optimism. Jobless, clueless and cashless, I arrived with my belongings packed into my pick-up truck, and my dog in the cab, like a cliché country song.
Stop the highlight reel. Small Problem. I couldn’t find a job. I was a few years out of school, confident in my clinical and communication skills. There were a few postings, but after a few quick phone calls, realized that none were a great fit. I started looking for work as a locum tenens, which is a self-employed position where you act as a “substitute” veterinarian (or technician), usually for a short or intermittent time. I had some experience with working as a locum in Florida, but I had no idea how to start offering locum services, and being new to Calgary I did not have many connections. Back then, there were no online services or networks to make easy connections like there are now. I began networking at the local vet association, reaching out to other locums and clinics to let them know I was available, and over the next few months, built a client list that within a year kept me busy. Soon, I was booking in Calgary for a year in advance! I even managed to score a 2-month locum term in Saipan, Mariana Islands. Truth be told – I didn’t even know where Saipan was when I applied.
I was a bit nervous about being self-employed. I am not the most organized person, and I was worried about the business side, especially taxes and insurance. Seeing business owners everywhere gave me confidence. If they could do it, so could I! I remember sitting down and comparing locum work with the associated costs involved (license, insurance, health care) to a full-time job at the time. It actually came out fairly even. But, I loved being a locum. One of my core life values is freedom, so being a locum allowed me to be in charge of my own schedule, without having to ask a boss for time off. A surprising benefit for me was removing myself from gossip and clinic drama. I had not realized how much ongoing staff conflict and passive aggressive battles had worn down my motivation over time. I learned so much, by working at many different clinics, I picked up really cool tricks and tips to improve my quality of care.
I started with a part time job as a stable base salary, and used locum work to supplement my income. Many locums start out this way, as a low-risk option to trying the locum lifestyle.
Be conscientious in meeting Canada Revenue independent contractor requirements. If you get a long-term job at one clinic, you should check with your accountant to find out if you should be an employee or a locum.
Imagine the flexibility. Book yourself off for a month – travel to Fiji to volunteer at a spay/neuter clinic, followed by a long vacation at the beach. Take summers off to be with your kids, or winters off to go somewhere warmer. Take some days off midweek to get cheaper tickets and shorter lift lines at the slopes, or to avoid crowds at the beach. With the rise in part time employment and flexible work hours, more clinics are looking to locums to fill their temporary needs.
There are some challenges to being a locum. Flexibility is required, as well as an easygoing attitude. You will be most successful in a clinic if you see yourself as a service provider to the clinic team, the owner and the clients. It can be a balancing act, but if you ask a lot of questions, check your ego at the door, and come from a place of service, the rest will come easily. Most potential conflicts arise around a lack of communication. Drafting a checklist of requirements to review with your clinic is essential. For instance, if you refuse to perform certain surgeries like declawing a cat – make sure this is in an introductory document or checklist to discuss. Do they work with exotics? What if you stay late or miss a lunch break? Clear communication is crucial. Some locums offer a clinic visit before they agree to an extended term.
Now, the boring stuff (luckily, it’s easy). You need to be organized. Contracts, taxes, bookkeeping and tracking mileage and expenses is mandatory. I have a bookkeeper and an accountant to help me with those aspects. Using a service like Oxilia will help you with some of the other daunting tasks like marketing, finding business, contracts, and income tracking.
If you are considering the locum lifestyle, here are a few suggestions:
#1. Keep your current job and start by picking up extra shifts here and there. You will slowly develop your confidence to take on longer jobs. Create the life YOU want to live – being a locum can be whatever you want it to be – it does not have to be all-or-nothing.
#2. Call your local small business support, such as the one in Alberta, or start with the Canada Revenue Agency. You don’t have to do it alone – there are so many organizations and resources to help you set up a business. It is definitely much easier than trimming a puppy’s nails! People do it every day, even the guy selling hot dogs at the park!
#3. Contact a locum agency. Agencies like Oxilia have excellent tips, resources and support to make your transition seamless.
#4. Strategically contact clinics if you have a set of criteria that you prefer (AAHA, Feline only, etc). Networking can be useful but also time consuming, so find the “low hanging fruit” first by checking listings and ads for locums wanted to avoid wasting your time.
#5. Get to know other locums – learn about what systems they use, give each other referrals, and have a network to bounce ideas off.
#6. Make sure that if you work as a locum, you have a contract. If you go through Oxilia, they will arrange this for you. It’s crucial!
#7. Use technology – apps like Mile IQ, Waveaccounting.com, and many others will help you to manage your business needs so that you can keep saving pets’ lives.
Now, after 21 years, I can say that I still love working as a locum tenens. I feel so good about offering a service to my colleagues to allow them to take the time off they need to refresh, while supporting the lifestyle I want. The richness of experience, relationships and networking as a locum is unmatched. I have learned so many new skills, and many of my interesting contract positions have resulted from the diversity of people that I meet in my business.
Thanks to my locum lifestyle, I’m heading to New Zealand with my family for a wedding in December. Who goes to New Zealand for a few weeks? I’m clearly going for a month, with a stop in Tahiti for a week on the way home. Try to ask your boss for that kind of vacation, I dare you!
Caroline Brookfield provokes professionals to thrive by showing them how to play in the margins of convention. Veterinarian, entrepreneur, aspiring stand-up comedian and mom, she lives in Calgary, Alberta. Find her on Instagram (@artfulscience) or online at www.carolinebrookfield.com.