The Whole Veterinarian

Developing Autonomy and Efficiency in Veterinary Practices featuring Stephen McLaughry

July 13, 2023 Stephen McLaughry Season 6 Episode 67
The Whole Veterinarian
Developing Autonomy and Efficiency in Veterinary Practices featuring Stephen McLaughry
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Today we dive into the ways that technology and workplace culture intersect when in comes to improving recruitment and retention of our veterinary employees.  Stephen McLaughry, CEO and co-founder of Vet Badger, took his skills from the world of software engineering and poured them into the profession of veterinary medicine. He shares his unique journey of co-owning a small animal clinic with his wife and how it inspired him to create a platform that revolutionizes the way veterinary practices operate.

Our conversation covers everything from managing relationships with clients who expect a personal touch to the impact of a four-day work week on job satisfaction and team dynamics. The idea of creating autonomy for employees is a thread that both Stephen and I find imperative to improving workplace culture. He shares his perspective on developing autonomy in order to retain talented employees. This episode offers insights about fostering a positive work culture, managing client expectations, and leveraging technology for the betterment of veterinary practice.

About our guest!
Stephen McLaughry is the CEO and co-founder of VetBadger. He is also the practice manager for BarburVet, the small animal clinic he has owned alongside his wife, Dr. Alexandra for over 9 years.  Prior to starting VetBadger, Stephen worked as a software engineer.  After 20 plus years of seeing the struggles his wife was dealing with in regards to managing all the client and team relationships that came along with being a veterinarian and clinic owner, as well as her struggles with available software at the time, he decided to create VetBadger. Vetbadger is a practice management system that is designed to allow veterinarians and their teams to work together with their clients without losing their sanity. The software was developed with the mission to make practices like BarburVet as efficient (and enjoyable) as possible. In his "off time," Stephen can be found shuttling his teenage daughters to and from school and activities, spending time with his wife and two dogs, or racing his bicycle.

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Stacey Cordivano:

Do you feel like it's possible to find joy and positive change within veterinary medicine? Are you looking for a community that's striving for fulfillment rather than perfection? Hey there, I'm Stacey Cordivano. I want veterinarians to learn to be happier, healthier, wealthier and more grateful for the lives that we've created. On this podcast, I will speak with outside-of-the-box thinkers to hear new ideas on ways to improve our day-to-day lives. Welcome to The Whole Veterinarian. My guest today is Stephen McLaughry. He is the CEO and co-founder of Vet Badger, which is a veterinary practice management software. He is also the practice manager for Barber Vet, which is a small animal clinic that he has owned alongside his wife for over nine years. Prior to starting Vet Badger, Stephen worked as a software engineer, but after 20-plus years of seeing the struggles his wife was dealing with in regards to managing client and team relationships, as well as her struggles with available software at the time, he decided to create Vet Badger. In his off-time, stephen can be found shuttling his teenage daughters to and from school activities, spending time with his wife and their two dogs or racing his bicycle. Today we have kind of a wide-ranging chat about management and employees and kind of all things HR, and Steven shares some really insightful ideas about creating a better team culture, so I'm excited to share this one with you. Please enjoy. Hi, stephen, it's really nice to meet you. Thank you for being here today.

Stephen McLaughry:

Hi Stacey, it's great to be here.

Stacey Cordivano:

So I am curious to hear a little bit more about you and your background and kind of your journey in veterinary medicine.

Stephen McLaughry:

Yeah, so I have kind of an unusual journey. I didn't have any sort of direct experience with any sort of medical background. When I was growing up we had pets that was about it. And then I met the woman who had ended up being my wife just before she started vet school, and so we got married after her first year in vet school and she was in Dublin, ireland, and so we moved to Ireland. I have a background in software engineering, so I was writing software while she was in vet school and then she started in corporate practice for a while, and so I sort of had some experience with what she was going through, but not a lot of. You know, there wasn't a lot of opportunity for me to sort of be involved. And then about nine years ago we bought a private practice and so I've been the co-owner of a practice for about nine years, and then about that time we also started talking about software, and so she had some concerns about the software that was available and we started talking about the features that we'd like to build. And you know how practice management software should really work, and a lot of it comes down to sort of managing relationships, and I think that's one of the things that a lot of software is not very strong in, and so we started building VetBadger, which is a practice management software, and started using it at her clinic. But that was sort of my exposure to her clinic was sort of running the software company, getting feedback from her on how it worked and talking to a lot of other vets, of course you know, bringing on other vets onto the software. But then about a year and a half ago we went through some drama at the clinic and I ended up as the practice manager, and so for the last year and a half now I've been managing a small animal practice here in Portland Oregon.

Stacey Cordivano:

Got it, was that a role you were glad to take on?

Stephen McLaughry:

Yes, on the whole. Yes, it was a challenge, but you know I had obviously I had spent many years talking to practice managers and working with vets and I had what I thought was a good exposure to how it would work A lot of practice managers. As with many things in veterinary medicine, a lot of it comes down to relationships with people and if your background is in software engineering, that's not necessarily a strength, but I feel like I'm making a reasonably good attempt at it.

Stacey Cordivano:

Great. Well, I want to dig more into about, like, what you're doing, but before I do that, you've said it twice now and I want you to elaborate a little bit more kind of this idea of basing it around relationships and especially your practice software. I want to know more what that means because I think, yeah, we can all agree that practice management software is tough. Yeah.

Stephen McLaughry:

The way we look at it, the way we first started looking at it, was that. So back up a second. Even before it was practice management software, what my wife initially really wanted was a better way to manage her communication with her clients. One of the things that we realized about the relationship that you as a vet have with your clients is that it's asymmetric, because typically your client has one vet but you have maybe a couple thousand clients and each of those clients wants to feel as though they have a close personal relationship with you. But you've got 2,000 of them to keep track of. And I often call it the grocery store problem, because my wife will be walking down the aisle of the grocery store and someone will walk up to her and say, dr Alexandra, how are you? And she'll look at them like I don't remember who you are. I would remember your pet, but I can't remember your face, and so this is sort of a constant problem I feel with. I mean, veterinary medicine isn't the only place that this happens. It's one of the biggest problems I think with the software that is provided is that it doesn't offer you any support for this type of problem where you want to be able to look at a medical record and not just see like here's the list of medical problems that this patient has had, but here's the list of all of my interactions with this client and here's things that my staff have said to this client, things that this client has replied to my staff. And all of those things factor into the way that you're going to communicate with that client. And we know that client communication is key to compliance. Right, I mean better compliance. The numbers are like 47% or something. Your clients are going to follow your instructions more closely if they feel that they have an open channel of communication with you, if they feel like they have a good relationship with you. And so it's better medicine to have better communication. And it's really difficult to try to manage that in sort of an ad hoc manner. And so that was one of our core initial beliefs about what we wanted to build, and so we started building vet-badger with that sort of communication management, client relationship management at the heart of the medical record. And then the next thing we realized was that there is a similar it's a different dynamic, but if you're working with a team, there are team relationships that need to be managed, and in that case it's more a question of sort of workflow and making things as efficient as possible, but giving each individual member of the team some autonomy and some control over their own work, while also keeping everything synchronized and making sure that everything gets done. That was another area that we felt that practice management software didn't really address.

Stacey Cordivano:

That Great yeah, and I think that's a great transition to talk about team dynamics in general and, you know, keeping your staff members, attracting great new staff members, and the word autonomy is a huge part of that because we know just from research and burnout and retention studies that autonomy is so important. So what do you see now as a practice manager and having developed the software that focuses on that, what are you seeing in the industry and what's working, what's not working?

Stephen McLaughry:

So this is where I don't want to claim to be an expert in this, because I you know I have not a whole lot of experience and, honestly, I have failed quite a bit. Yeah, retention is always difficult, so the first thing I would say sort of the elephant in the room is let's not pretend that it's not about money. I think that's been one of the biggest problems in the industry is that employers tend to take advantage of the fact that people in this industry do it because they love it and the employers can get away with paying them less, and that's not a sustainable path. So I think the first thing that you know, if you're looking to retain your staff, make sure you're paying them well and not just sort of living wage salaries, but make sure you're paying them competitive salaries so that they're not looking for other careers. Yeah great point. And then there are things about like offering free lunch, offering flexible schedules, work life balance, all those kinds of things. But once you've addressed all that, yeah, having a culture in the clinic where people are responsible for their own tasks, people can determine their own workload but can still be accountable for the work that they're getting done I think having all those things sort of built into the clinic culture is a key to keeping people sort of fully engaged with the job.

Stacey Cordivano:

And so for owners or managers that are listening, if that's not currently how their practice runs, do you have suggestions on how maybe they can move in the direction of providing more autonomy?

Stephen McLaughry:

I think I mean, yeah, it's often difficult to make these adjustments in stages. It depends on how many. So many systems are sort of interwoven with the procedures and the process that you have in place, and it is very difficult to change cultures overnight. It's not something that you can just decide. Hey, we're going to give everybody autonomy today.

Stacey Cordivano:

I know that's really too bad. It'd be great if that was possible.

Stephen McLaughry:

Yeah, but if you start off with the goal of we want to get the most value possible from our employees, as a business owner, there is great value in leveraging the skills of your employees, and so that works better if you can let them find their own strengths. And so if you start off with that philosophy, then you say, well, instead of just having sort of predefined roles, let's have a bunch of different types of roles and people can fill them in different ways. So, for example, you can have an assistant who likes working in surgery and doesn't like working in the rooms, but it's a similar skill set, but maybe they don't want to interact with people quite so much, and so you can let people choose that. And maybe even on a daily basis, you can say, well, let people sort of come up with their own role assignments for the day.

Stacey Cordivano:

So are you guys like tactically, are you guys doing that in staff meetings? Yeah and again that's sort of.

Stephen McLaughry:

There's sort of an ad hoc meeting at the beginning of the day where people go through and say, well, I'm going to work with this client, and then I'm going to work with this client, and they kind of look at the schedule and say these are the clients that are coming in. We've got these procedures that we're doing today. I should step back a little bit. One other strategy that we've been implementing and again I don't know if this is a great long-term strategy, but it's sort of the only thing we've been able to come up with recently is overhiring, because one of the problems these days is absenteeism. It has become and I don't know. Again, I'm sort of new at this, but it definitely surprises me how frequently not everybody comes to work, and I've been an employee for a long time and I certainly understand there are definitely days when you don't want to be at work, and there are. As an employer, I don't necessarily want to force people to come to work if they don't want to be there, and so I have to find other ways to adjust for that, and one of the ways that we've done it is we've hired more people than we actually need, but what that means is you have to give everybody flexibility depending on who's there on the day. Which tasks are they going to take on? Which roles are people going to fill, based on who's currently available?

Stacey Cordivano:

And you're letting them kind of do that on their own. That's them gathering in the morning. I don't know what's normal. I don't work in a small animal clinic, but I don't imagine that a lot of clinics are doing that, so I think it's interesting yeah.

Stephen McLaughry:

And again and I can't say that this is normal Again, as I said, I'm sort of an amateur at this and I'm not a full-time practice manager, so I'm not there during this morning meeting. And I think in the past we've had practice managers who were sort of more involved in that. We also had much higher turnover back then, so maybe I've accidentally stumbled onto an answer.

Stacey Cordivano:

Yeah, no, I mean, that's why I was asking right, because I mean this podcast is all about thinking outside of the box, and so maybe you did just need someone that hasn't been in the trenches for 20 years doing it the same way over and over again. So, yeah, I think it's interesting.

Stephen McLaughry:

Yeah, I mean, so far it seems to be working pretty well. And again, of course, we've been using the software for a long time and I don't know how much of it is directly attributable to the features that are built into the software. There's task management stuff that's in there. That's where the original ideas around autonomy came from is that you can decide which tasks you're going to pick up at any given time, and once you've taken responsibility for those tasks, they're on your list and they're not on other people's lists, and so that's sort of the way that part of it works, and I don't know if that has helped us build the culture where an approach like this would work.

Stacey Cordivano:

Mm-hmm, because there's some accountability, then yeah, because you've put it on your own list.

Stephen McLaughry:

Yeah, you've put it on your own list and people can see when it's gotten done, who did it. But it's not. You know, other people can give you tasks, but you don't have to do them and you can arrange the priority of the task as well. Everything is sort of priority ordered.

Stacey Cordivano:

Yeah, I would imagine that plays some part in it at least. Yeah, that's interesting. And then I'm sure there's some people out there thinking I can't over hire. What are you guys doing to attract new talent?

Stephen McLaughry:

So this part's interesting. I don't know exactly. Again, we're a small enough team that my sample size is not large here. I feel as though the culture is pretty good and that helps us hire. I think you know we do offer competitive salaries. One of the main things is that we offer a four-day work week with three-day weekends, and it's not just sort of, you know, everybody only has to work four days a week. It's everybody works the same four days every week because the clinic is only open four days a week. So that was one of the main things that we changed.

Stacey Cordivano:

Oh, interesting. Yeah, I was wondering how you made it, even that everybody got a three-day weekend.

Stephen McLaughry:

Yeah, this is one of the things that we changed. We resisted this idea for a while but we used to have an associate and she left about a year ago and Dr Alexander, my wife, was not interested in working six days a week. She had done that earlier in her career and was just kind of like, no, I'm all done with that, we're not going to stay open six days a week. So initially it was sort of an emergency, like, well, you know, we'll have to just be open, you know, four days a week or something. And then we started talking to our advisors and started looking around at the numbers and the environment that we're in now and it actually kind of made sense and we started thinking, well, if we're only open four days, it's the same team working together in the same way every day, and so this is part of the sort of psychological safety, autonomy, all of these things. Everybody knows who's going to be well, aside from the absenteeism when people don't come in. But that becomes the only time that the team changes. So you're not dealing with rotating schedules, you're not dealing with hey, if you work Saturday, I'll work your Thursday or something All that complexity around managing people's lives and trying to plan out. That constantly dynamic schedule makes it so much easier for people to plan their lives, but also to understand what to expect when they're at work as well, because it's the same team and it's the same schedule all the time.

Stacey Cordivano:

Yeah, that's really interesting and I know all the research in other industries is saying that four-day work weeks are just as productive, and certainly there's a little more talk in the equine industry about it. But there's also a lot of pushback like how could I possibly make as much money in four days? But so you're backing up that profitability-wise it works as well.

Stephen McLaughry:

I can tell you that we make more money than we did before.

Stacey Cordivano:

Yeah, yeah, and do you have thoughts on why that is? I mean, I have thoughts, I've read thoughts, but I'm curious on your thoughts.

Stephen McLaughry:

I mean, I have specific thoughts about the people involved and, again, this is not a large sample size, because we've made this change while we're going through a process of inflation and lots of financial changes, economic changes in the environment, and so if you look at our numbers, they are significantly better than they were last year. How much of that is attributable to the four-day week? Probably not much, but it certainly hasn't made it worse, yeah, and in terms of work-life balance, yeah, absolutely. I mean it's made everything better.

Stacey Cordivano:

No brainer.

Stephen McLaughry:

And it has again small sample size. But I feel as though the turnover problem has gotten a lot Better. I feel as though people are happier at work. It just makes more sense to me.

Stacey Cordivano:

Yeah, that's great to hear. I love any research to back that up because, yeah, I think it's so important. When my associate joined, she just defaulted into a five-day work week and I was like, nope, you're going to have a four-day work week because there's no way we can't get this all done in four days. I can cover the other day and you can have time to do what you need to do in your life, and I think she's been appreciative of that. So I'm hoping more people are moving that direction. Any other thoughts, kind of to wrap up, on advice or things to consider for owners or managers when they're thinking about recruiting and retaining employees?

Stephen McLaughry:

The one thing I would say is that you should recognize that the world has changed in the last couple of years in terms of what your biggest problem probably is. So I used to think of the business as the biggest problem was how do we find more clients, how do we increase revenue, like, how do we bring more people in the door? But then everything changed and clients bring themselves in the door, which it seems it's an obvious thing to say, but if you think about the consequences of that, we don't worry about marketing anymore, but we're also much more comfortable, for example, firing a client. The other side of it is it's very difficult to hire good staff and to retain good staff. Those two things are closely related. Because it used to be, there was this phrase the customer is always right. You tell your staff to bend over backwards to accommodate the needs of some whiny client. Now, that's not a good idea. You have a business imperative to stand behind your employees and your clients. I mean, I don't want to say they're expendable, but they kind of are right.

Stacey Cordivano:

If you want to care for your staff, the rude ones are Exactly.

Stephen McLaughry:

You can get rid of those clients. You can stand up to those clients and your staff will appreciate that you can provide that environment where your staff will understand that they don't have to take the abuse that often comes in a vet clinic if they know that you're going to stand behind them and get rid of the troublesome clients.

Stacey Cordivano:

Yeah, I think that's a great thing to point out and end on, because I still hear it from a lot of people in different groups or mentorship circles that they don't feel supported by their bosses, whether that's an associate veterinarian or a team member. Yeah, I think it's still a huge problem. So thanks for highlighting that. I appreciate that. I know you guys have a great newsletter. Where can people find out more about you, about the software connect with you, things like that?

Stephen McLaughry:

Yeah, yeah, just go to vetbadger. com.

Stacey Cordivano:

And then I always ask my guests what is one small thing that has brought you joy this past week?

Stephen McLaughry:

So I've been looking forward to this question and I thought maybe I'd come up with some erudite, philosophical answer. And then this morning the sun came out, and I don't know if you ever spent much time in the Pacific Northwest, especially in the winter time, but we haven't seen the sun for a while and I just realized, like I'm just going to go outside and enjoy some sunshine, because sometimes it's just the little things.

Stacey Cordivano:

It is. It is. That's the point of that question actually. So I appreciate you backing me up on that. Thank you so much for your time and your insight. I really appreciate it. It was nice getting to chat with you, yeah.

Stephen McLaughry:

Thanks a lot.

Stacey Cordivano:

Thank you so much for tuning in to the Whole Veterinarian podcast. I so appreciate the time that you spend with me. To connect, please find me on Instagram @thewhole veterinarian, or check out the website at thewholeveterinarian. com, and you can sign up for our monthly newsletter as well. Thanks again, and I'll talk to you soon.

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