Riverland’s only veterinary GP and emergency practice struggles with increasing workload

Veterinarian Olivia McKinley knows all about working long days, but her hours in the clinic are just increasing.

Key points:

  • Riverland Veterinary Practice is left as the only GP and emergency center within 31,000 sq km
  • With a national vet shortage, the practice has gained thousands of clients but no extra staff
  • Vets at RVP say the high workload is taking a toll and more vets are urgently needed

The regional vet works at the Riverland Veterinary Practice in South Australia and started her career six years ago.

Dr McKinley said while there had been a shortage of professionals in the industry for several years, the issue had intensified in her area over the past 12 months.

She said demand for services had surged after the only other bricks-and-mortar clinic in the Riverland, RivaPetz, closed its doors.

“We have gained an even larger client base but we still have the same number of staff, which is really contributing to a very high and stressful workload.”

Dr McKinley says the workload has become hard to manage.(ABC Riverland: Victor Petrovic)

Workload causing mental load

Dr McKinley said while she and her colleagues were focused on providing the best care possible, the long and relentless hours were wearing her down.

She said she was fortunate to have a supportive management team that tried to provide breaks whenever possible.

“They try their hardest to help reshuffle the days to have extra breaks and catch our breath, but we just basically take each day as it comes.

“All we want to do is provide the best standard of medicine that we can for all of our patients, which can be really challenging when we’ve got three to four cases going on at the same time.

“Having all this extra work on top of our already big workload has definitely negatively impacted my mental health and I know the mental health of the other clinicians I work with.”

A female veterinarian poses with a smiling dog in the examination room of her practice. Dr McKinley says the management team does its best to care for staff too.(ABC Riverland: Victor Petrovic)

Pet ownership rise exacerbates demand

A report by Animal Medicines Australia found 69 per cent of households in 2021 owned pets, up from 61 per cent in 2019.

Dr McKinley said the increase in pet ownership coinciding with the closure of RivaPetz – which conducted much of the preventative pet care like routine vaccination appointments – had caused her clinic to gain scores of additional clients.

“Working in a city, you’ve got the option to refer things like emergencies to another practice, but here in the Riverland we are that centre.

“We have to take on all of those emergencies, which nearly doubles our workload, on top of our routine work like consultations, vaccinations and de-sexing.”

Two female vets give a medium sized white dog an injection at a veterinary practice. Vets at the practice do their best to juggle routine procedures with emergency care.(ABC Riverland: Victor Petrovic)

Longer term, sustainable solution needed

Assistant manager Kalsey Fear said the practice was the only emergency center between Adelaide and Mildura, servicing an area of ​​about 31,000 square kilometers.

It cares for everything from household pets such as cats and dogs to livestock, horses, sheep and pigs.

Ms Fear said administration staff were forced to “reshuffle” appointments at times to handle the large case load and urgent matters.

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“We always put our patients and our clients first, and sometimes we do need to reschedule routine things for more urgent care, so we’re doing the best we can and we’re not willing to compromise on our patient care,” she said .

“Long-term, we definitely need more staff, more vets and more nurses, and we would be able to deal with this workload.

“Unfortunately there is a worldwide shortage. We have advertisements out there, but we will struggle to continue the way we’re going if we don’t get more staff and fill those roles.”

A medium sized white dog, with black spots, stares at the camera while sitting on a pillow, with two vets around. A dog waits to receive medical care at the Riverland Veterinary Practice.(ABC Riverland: Victor Petrovic)

The Australian Veterinary Association agreed the situation was not sustainable and heavy workloads were causing people to leave the industry.

Head of veterinary and public affairs Cristy Secombe said, however, this was compounding the problem too.

“The reason they’re leaving is because the challenges are outweighing the rewards,” she said.

“That puts greater pressure on the practice that might be left in that rural setting, and then they actually have increased levels of burnout and stress.”

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