The ins and outs of surviving in a veterinary partnership.

Partnerships may provide individual veterinarians with some semblance of free time and a personal life, but they can also bring their own set of headaches.

“I was at a practice a couple of weeks ago, and one guy's veterinary truck was a nightmare, while the other guy's truck looked like a surgical suite,” he says. “It drove the neat guy crazy,” says David Horn a veterinary practice consultant.

One way to avoid friction is to attempt to work out problems before forming a partnership.

“Realize your differences ahead of time and either come to terms with the fact that you're not going to let them bother you, or do something about them,” says Horn, an associate with Brakke Consulting, Greenwich, NY.

A handful of areas typically lead to the worst problems, he says. These include how to divide partnership income, differences in veterinary philosophies, personal habits and a catchall category that includes little things such as keeping good inventory records.

“If one wants to be on the cutting edge of veterinary medicine and the other wants to treat sick cows, that's probably going to cause problems,” says Horn. “There's a place for both. You just need an understanding before you go into practice together.”

Another point of contention is the issue of time off. “You need to value the other practitioner's free time,” Horn says. “Some guys don't like to take time off. They're workaholics. Other guys need time to recharge.”

The problems of partnerships can be avoided by going it alone. But without a partner to take some of the pressure off, vets may find themselves burning out.

“I know a great veterinary surgeon who is now running a landscape business,” says consultant Rob Deegan. “That's the extreme case, but it can happen.”

That kind of commitment also takes its toll on marriages, says Deegan, who is based in Maquoketa, IA. In addition, one needs to consider the effect on children who don't get the parental attention they need.”

As a practicing veterinarian, Deegan understands the toll of burnout.

“I took three and half years off,” he recalls. “It took six months before the telephone could ring without triggering an adrenaline surge that I was going to have to go out and do something.”

Increasingly, however, large animal vets are turning to various arrangements that will ally them with other practitioners. Some form loose alliances in which a group of unaffiliated vets work out of the same building and cover for one another when they need time off.

Others prefer formal partnerships. But, that also can present challenges that often accompany people working closely together for extended periods. Partnerships definitely can work, but it takes effort, advanced planning and often a sense of humor.

Humor Is A Necessary Tool

“One function of humor is that it strengthens relationships,” says Karyn Buxman, a professional humorist based in Hannibal, MO. “People who have fun together become a much more cohesive group than those who do not.”

Well-placed humor also can diffuse difficult situations. But, she cautions that some types of humor are to be avoided.

“If somebody uses humor that targets another person, you're adding fuel to the fire,” says Buxman. And, avoid sarcasm.

Also, set up a system that helps to avoid questions about money.

“A practice has to have a very good accounting system to keep track of where the money comes from and where it flows to,” says Deegan, who is affiliated with Veterinary Practice Consultants, a major consulting firm. “When you're a sole practitioner, it's not that big of a deal.”

Good accounting requires vets to promptly bill clients. It's not just a matter of cash flow, however. Prescriptions, diagnostic tests and medical procedures performed should be tracked. This helps with financial accounting and can protect a practice in a malpractice suit.

“If you don't have good medical records, you can't demonstrate what you did for a client, and you'll lose in court,” says Deegan.

Outside expertise is available. It might be as simple as consulting with other vets who have had partnership experience. They may be able to help find the sources of conflict and help resolve them. Think of it as a sort of marriage counseling.

But one of the best ways to avoid conflicts is to cut each partner a little slack.

“Many of the problems in our society crop up because people can't give a little room. People don't know how to sit down and discuss things and come to a reasonable conclusion,” Deegan says.

Vets are no different. “Veterinarians weren't selected on their diplomatic abilities,” says Deegan. “They were selected because they like animals and have really good grade point averages.”

Doug McInnis is a freelance business writer and frequent contributor to BEEF. He's based in Casper, WY.