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Bringing on a New Associate: Is Mentorship the Answer?

Stith Keiser, Business Manager, My Veterinary Career & Career Development, AAHA

July / August 2013|Web-Exclusive

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The average US practice has about 2 full-time veterinarians.1 In most practices, clients visit because of relationships, and it is tempting to stay small and intimate and not hire another associate—even when it may be beneficial. On the other hand, some multidoctor practices hire additional associates as a result of perceived need,— even when  the practice may not be ready. In either case, practitioners who fail to hire for the right reason and then do not train their new associate appropriately wonder why their new hires consistently fail to meet expectations.

Mentorship may be the answer. Mentoring can help graduates fit into the practice culture, improve their technical, business, and medical skills quickly, and allow them to succeed financially.2

Mentorship is similar to “an ongoing relationship between 2 individuals who are committed to improving their professional environment.” The mentee is typically a team member or colleague, and the mentor is more experienced. The mentor is not the same as a supervisor, although one person can serve both roles.”3 Studies in 2008 and 2012 of practice owners (mentors) and mentees that investigated the benefits of a structured mentorship plan found mentoring to be “a method to improve hospital culture, productivity, and efficiency. It has been shown to improve communication, promote long-term job satisfaction, and facilitate adoption of best practices. Ultimately, mentoring relationships can lead to improved patient care and overall hospital performance.”3

Mentoring can help graduates fit into the practice culture, improve their technical, business, and medical skills quickly, and allow them to succeed financially.

A recent survey of AAHA-accredited member practices found that 74.08% of practices did not have a formal mentorship program.4 The majority—60.78%— cited a lack of resources and lack of guidance; however, 69.97% of practices were “likely” to “highly likely” to be willing to mentor a new associate if a plan was available. A majority (63%) of mentors said the experience had been positive, citing reduced turnover (most new graduate mentees remained with the practice for at least 2 years, compared with the industry average of 70% turnover in the first year) and more quickly becoming a productive practice member. The survey also reported a positive response from mentees: 91.67% responded, “I…progressed and became the associate I wanted to become.” 

Mentoring relationships can offer graduates a potentially beneficial alternative to an internship. In the past 3 years, just under 50% of graduates surveyed by the AVMA were pursuing internships, yet only 38% planned to follow with a residency, even though the majority said they thought an internship would make them better practitioners or provide additional guidance.5 Chasing an internship for these reasons can have a high cost―in 2012, the average internship paid $29,6285 and actually cost the intern $50,000 to $60,000 compared with going straight into practice.6

Completing an internship before going into general practice does not increase your worth enough to offset the cost. A study of University of Pennsylvania students found that those who did an internship made 26% more than new graduates who went straight into practice, but they lost $40,000 of income while doing an internship.7 An internship typically costs:

1.    Applications and travel: $1,000
2.    Unpaid student loan interest at 6.8%: $9,112
3.    Lost salary ($68,000-$28,000): $40,000
4.    Average loan for living expenses: $10,000
5.    Loan interest at 12%: $880

Both the mentor and the mentee should do the following before entering a formal program:

1.    Establish the desired outcome. Is it to become more thorough in the examination room? Increase surgical speed and efficiency? Learn the business aspect of running a practice?
2.    Clearly define expectations, such as the time commitment and salary.
3.    Establish benchmarks to track and measure the mentee’s progression, which helps the mentee and mentor see whether their efforts—in time, money, or resources— pay off. Depending on the goals, benchmarks should include gross production, average client transaction, and percentage of appointments.
4.    Schedule regular review sessions. Feedback is imperative.

Mentorship is not for everyone, but a formal program can offer a properly compensated transition into practice.

Mentorship Toolkit
In 2013, at the NAVC Conference in Orlando and the AAHA Conference in Phoenix, with the assistance of the National Veterinary Business Management Association, AAHA and VetPartners’ Career Development Special Interest Group introduced the “Mentorship Toolkit,” which took into account feedback from current mentors and mentees, as well as those who have abstained in the past, and provided a customizable mentorship program with defined goals, measurement tools, and outcomes that can be implemented in any practice.


1.    Financial and Productivity Pulsepoints, 6th ed. Lakewood, Colorado: AAHA Press, 2010.
2.    The Real Value and Cost of Mentorship. Roark A, Wilson J. DVM Newsmagazine October 1:22-26, 2005.
3.    American Animal Hospital Association Mentoring Guidelines. Tait J, Carpenter T, Davidson S, et al. Trends Magazine  47-53, 2008.
4.    Bridging the gap. Britton K, Keiser S, Wilson J, et al. Trends Magazine 30-33, 2013.
5.    Facts & Figures: Employment, starting salaries, and education indebtedness of year 2012 graduates of US veterinary medical colleges. Shepherd AJ, Pikel L. JAVMA 241:7:890-894, 2012.
6.    The Elephant in the Room Series on Educational Debt. Wilson JF. Five-year series presented at the NAVC, Orlando, Florida, by the National Veterinary Business Management Association and VetPartners Career Development Special Interest Group, 2008-2012.
7.    Confidence, not cash, motivates interns. Choca L. Trends Magazine 77-82, 2010.

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