Team effort creates an award-winning practice

Alemu Shewakena Vets4Pets practice of year winner

I was born and raised in the picturesque Ethiopian highlands. As part of a farming family, I was surrounded by farm and domestic animals.

As I progressed through school, I became increasingly interested in biology and natural sciences and decided to study veterinary medicine. I joined vet school in Ethiopia, but left due to financial constraints.

I then worked in an agricultural research centre and as a primary school teacher, but I still wanted to become a veterinarian, so I decided to apply for a state-funded scholarship to study abroad. Two years later I found myself in Prague – without knowing a word of the Czech language. It was a culture shock.

I embarked on an intensive eight-month language course that would allow me to join vet school. Of the 35 foreign students who started the course, I was one of three to gain a place at vet school. If I thought the intensive language course was hard, I found the first year of university even harder.

Within a couple of years, my language skills had improved enough that I decided to study public health and environmental science simultaneously with veterinary medicine. I graduated in both disciplines, a year apart.

My plan had always been to finish my education and return home, where I intended to modernise our farm and open a veterinary surgery. However, towards the end of my studies I met a Scottish girl from Glasgow who was teaching English in Prague. We married and moved to Scotland.

It was then that I discovered that the RCVS could not recognise my degree because I am not an EU citizen. It meant sitting the RCVS’ statutory examination to be able to join the register to practise. Although studying felt never-ending, having come so far, I wasn’t going to give up!

Initially, I worked in restaurants, washing dishes in the evenings and at weekends to support myself. This allowed me to spend time in different practices during the day, gaining the experience I needed. The rest of the time I studied.

At last, I was ready to sit the exam in English. After all my preparation and the cost involved, it was cancelled a month beforehand because of the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak. This meant another year of studying, another year of waiting and another year of working in a restaurant. I finally sat and passed the exam in 2002 and, as every new graduate knows, the real test of working as a vet was about to begin.

My first job was in a mixed practice in the beautiful countryside of mid Wales. After a wonderful year, I moved to another mixed, although largely small animal, practice in West Yorkshire. It was here that I realised that my interest was working with companion animals.

"Should I specialise, go into research, or start my own practice?"

Working in an out-of-hours practice and then at a referral hospital offered me the chance to gain lots of experience. I found the out-of-hours work tough and challenging, but rewarding. Although I enjoyed the experience, after five years I began to explore my long-term options. Should I specialise, go into research, or start my own practice? The old days of starting a surgery with little more than a thermometer and stethoscope were long gone. Client expectations had dramatically increased, and the one-stop shop had become the trend.

Thanks to my diverse experience, I enjoyed working up my cases to reach a diagnosis, but I didn’t have the funds to open a fully equipped, state-of-the-art clinic, and definitely not one in a retail park, which was where I wanted it to be. One way I could achieve what I wanted was by joining the Pets at Home Veterinary Group.

By this time, life had brought me back to Scotland. I wanted my practice to be on the biggest retail park in Paisley. Although the Vet Group opened vet surgeries in Pets At Home stores, there wasn’t a store in that specific retail park.

I was given a number of options in existing stores around Glasgow, but my children were four and six and I didn’t want to be commuting long distances. Then, after two-and-a-half years of discussions, Pets at Home opened a store in the exact location I wanted and my surgery opened.

Initially, it was important to get as much attention focused on the new practice as possible. By working with the store team, we helped to spread the word to shoppers that there was a vet in the store. Being right next to a major supermarket, as well as within the pet store, helped to raise the brand awareness and we received a phenomenal number of new client registrations.

My surgery team worked together with the store team on a number of charity activities and events, such as practice tours, which were popular among clients and local groups. Having the opportunity to see behind the scenes of a vet surgery, learning what the equipment does and about our roles helps clients understand what we can do for their pets.

We have continually strived to improve the client journey to be the local community vet of choice. It wasn’t just about being noticed, it was also about getting known. Some of our most interesting cases were featured by the local media and, when time permitted, our senior nurses visited local schools to explain what the veterinary team does and the ways in which it involves so much more than just treating animals.

Nine years of hard work later, my practice has offered lots of ups and downs – joyful moments and sleepless nights – to become one of the group’s most successful practices.

It continues to go from strength to strength and we are still registering about 100 new clients a month.

From my early years working as a junior vet, I was always keen to work up cases – to reach a specific diagnosis and provide targeted treatment –avoiding trial and error or practising on a ‘wait and see’, or ‘come back if it doesn’t get better’ basis. I have always believed in providing a high-quality, gold-standard service.

From the reception desk to the consultation rooms, through hospital admissions to major surgeries, I always involve clients in the decision-making process on how their pet should be treated.

I involve my work colleagues in investigations and reaching diagnoses, with my nurses explaining cases they are looking after. It is a team effort. Our clients know that their pet will receive the best care and treatment.

"Satisfied clients are happy to spread good news and positive words about the practice and our dedicated team"

It is following up cases from the start of a problem to a complete resolution or long-term management, that leads to satisfied clients who are happy to spread good news and positive words about the practice and our dedicated team. My wonderful team has supported me in delivering this high standard of service. I feel honoured that we were voted Practice of the Year at this year’s Vet Group’s National Partner Conference.

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