Paraprofessional program offers solutions for veterinary medicine

A veterinary assistant trims the toenails of a kitten held by a technician.
Brooklynn Halbach, left, a veterinary assistant at the Poulsbo Marina Veterinary Clinic in Poulsbo, Washington, cuts the toenails of Mr. Barlow as the kitten is held by veterinary technician Mikaela Heisler, right (photo by College of Veterinary Medicine/Ted S. Warren).

A new program at Washington State University could alleviate some of the most pressing issues facing the veterinary profession, including staffing shortages and burnout from long hours, high workloads and stress.

The problems plaguing the industry have been exacerbated in recent years, with pet ownership and service demands increasing at the same time clinics and hospitals are struggling with staff turnover and attracting qualified employees. 

Veterinary schools and technician programs have looked for solutions to bring more people into the profession, but the results of those efforts will take years to be seen. Leaders in the College of Veterinary Medicine at WSU, however, believe their first-of-its-kind Veterinary Paraprofessional Certificate Program can make a difference on a much shorter timeline and open the profession to a wider audience. 

“There is a huge issue in the profession with staffing shortages and burnout. Many of the current ideas being talked about are multi-year or decade-out solutions to an immediate problem,” said Dr. Hilary Koenigs, director of the Paraprofessional Certificate Program at WSU. “The goal of this program is to find an innovative way to address these issues, and get new, qualified people into the profession who can make a big impact in a short period of time.”

The program combines online learning that can be completed anywhere with hands-on training in a clinical setting. Students can complete a certificate in as little as a month and will leave prepared for new roles that will enhance client care and ease workloads for veterinarians and technicians.

The college began offering a veterinary scribe certificate in July, but there are plans to expand to offer certificates in telehealth, behavior, nutrition and preventative medicine. 

“Veterinary paraprofessionals will expand the team that can help serve clients’ needs,” the college’s dean, Dr. Dori Borjesson, said. “There are diverse teams of people supporting physicians in human medicine, and we envision something similar in veterinary medicine.”

Koenigs said the program will eliminate many barriers to the profession for groups traditionally underrepresented in veterinary medicine, thanks to low tuition cost, flexible online training and only requiring a high school degree or equivalent. 

“Diversity is a big focus for this program, and we’re partnering with a few of the undergraduate clubs at WSU and other organizations to hopefully provide scholarships,” she said. 

The certificates also are an option for undergraduate students looking for clinical experience before applying to veterinary school and current employees wanting to grow their skills and responsibilities. 

Dr. Kathy Hickey, a veterinarian and 2006 graduate of WSU’s Doctor of Veterinary Medicine program, helped to implement scribes into the Poulsbo Marina Veterinary Clinic in Poulsbo, Washington, before the COVID pandemic. She was consulted by WSU in the creation of the curriculum for the scribe certificate.

Hickey’s clinic cross-trained many of its employees to handle scribe duties, such as documenting patient visits and assisting in patient exams. She noted her team felt more engaged and fulfilled after the implementation, and clients gained higher levels of trust in support staff. Having a scribe in the exam room throughout the visit and not having assistants frequently entering and exiting reduced anxiety for pets.

Scribes have also resulted in the clinic’s veterinarians spending less time after hours completing medical records. 

“There is a huge morale boost for my doctors to be able to get to the end of the day, and even on the worst days when they haven’t written a single record, three-quarters of it is done because of the scribe,” Hickey said. 

Hickey’s clinic has already enrolled two of its veterinary assistants in WSU’s program to gain more thorough scribe training. 

Koenigs said WSU’s Veterinary Teaching Hospital plans to employ scribes in the future, meaning all veterinary students will be accustomed to working alongside paraprofessionals when they graduate. 

“It will be great clinical experience for pre-vet students looking to improve their applications to veterinary school,” she said, “and we would love every veterinarian graduating from WSU to be trained to work with scribes and understand the benefits of having that position in their practices. Clinics with appropriate staff ratios and trained individuals should be the standard they expect when they graduate.”

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