Career Spotlight: Sarah Gillings

Written by: Dr. Sarah Gillings
Published on: Jan 27, 2022

Sarah Gillings
Dr. Sarah Gillings

This is the third in a series of interviews with veterinary specialists connected to the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine (ACVIM) to share insights, knowledge and expertise about career opportunities, growth and development. Today we hear from ACVIM Diplomate Dr. Sarah Gillings.

Dr. Sarah Gillings is a Board-certified Veterinary Oncologist and one of the founders of Summit Veterinary Referral Center in Tacoma, WA. Sarah started out as a GP before clawing her way back into academia for residency training, and credits her professional successes to a combination of perseverance and luck. She is currently Summit’s Medical Director and remains in clinical practice part time. Sarah’s current interests include safety culture, continuous improvement, client experience, and resources to create a sustainable and rewarding veterinary career. Beyond Summit, Sarah is currently a member of the ACVIM Membership Committee and incoming Chair of the subcommittee that programs the ACVIM Forum business track. She has previously served on the Oncology Examination Rating Committee and Specialists in Private Practice Subcommittee. Additionally, Sarah is a member of the Veterinary Angels Network for Entrepreneurs (VANE) and Co-founder of a biotech startup.

1. What made you decide to choose veterinary specialty medicine as a career path, and specifically your specialty?

I cannot remember choosing veterinary medicine – I am one of those kids who KNEW that I would be a vet and went through my entire school career with a laser focus on that objective. I remember one moment the summer before starting veterinary school when I thought, “you know I never considered anything else, I wonder if I should have?”, before quickly dismissing it and never looking back. Before starting veterinary school I had an interest in wildlife, or possibly research. During veterinary school it was clear that companion animal medicine was for me, and although I was encouraged to pursue a specialty path, I was concerned that I would feel deprived by narrowing my focus and remained committed to being an excellent primary care doctor. After a few years in private practice, somebody who knew me when I was a senior vet student asked if I had ever considered specializing in oncology and I started to think about it. Ultimately, for me oncology is the perfect combination of really interesting science, clinical challenges, and deep client and patient relationships.

2. What does a typical work day look like for you?

Currently, I spend three-quarters of my time administratively as medical director of a large, still fairly young, rapidly growing multispecialty hospital and one-quarter of my time is clinical. I am very lucky to work with two wonderful colleagues who manage most of our new patients, and my clinical caseload consists primarily of established patients. On clinical days I see drop-off chemotherapy patients in the morning and some recheck appointments in the afternoon. Admin days are often heavy with meetings, but I’m currently trying to carve out more dedicated project time on a regular basis.

3. What do you consider one of your career successes? How did you achieve it?

I was always interested in practice ownership and as a GP that seemed achievable, but as a specialist I assumed it would be impossible to be an owner in the type of large multispecialty hospital that I wanted to practice in. When an opportunity arose to create a new specialty hospital with a group of established regional doctors, I jumped at it. I have through this experience learned a tremendous amount about leadership, group dynamics, and our industry in general. Joining this startup group was possible because I have a tendency to be favorably inclined toward rare opportunities, I am fairly risk tolerant, and ultimately I am willing to go with my gut feeling even in the face of many unknowns. I’ve learned over the years to not get too attached to plans and projections because we will always face unexpected challenges and opportunities, and to have confidence in creating a strong identity as an organization.

4. What do you consider a challenge you’ve faced in your career? How did you overcome it?

Probably landing a residency after being in private general practice for ultimately six years. Once I decided I was interested in a residency, I pursued that goal with escalating intensity and focus for three years. By the third year, I had visited at least 50% of existing oncology residency programs (spending a full week at one, and three full weeks at another in pursuit of updated recommendations), was spending one day every week observing with a local oncologist, and attended the annual VCS meeting to stalk/meet more people. After failing to match with a position in my third application year, I decided that I had done all that I could and started thinking about what my next goal should be. When a post-match position came up several weeks after match day, I almost didn’t pursue it but I knew I had to try. I managed to land that position at NCSU from a phone interview, and mobilized to move from Seattle to North Carolina with only six weeks' notice. Ultimately, I think my success came from a combination of stubborn perseverance, enormous luck, and the willingness to take a leap when I needed to say YES literally in the moment the position was offered.

5. How did the global pandemic affect your day-to-day working life?

Being near Seattle, we were at the early epicenter and we took immediate action to secure PPE, start masking at work, and move to a curbside model. We were also in the middle of a major construction project at the time, and closing the lobby to clients turned out to be a huge bonus related to that project (I can’t imagine that we would have come to that decision without COVID, but it was a game-changer for our operations during that time).  Clinically, at that time we also were struggling with limited oncology DVM capacity. Initially we simply moved new appointments to a curbside/phone call model, but I quickly experimented with providing initial information via an email in selected cases, which turned out to be a fantastic option for the right clients. The email information allowed us to expedite clinical planning that made the pet’s first onsite visit far more efficient and allowed my team to increase our overall patient capacity, and it is something that I am likely to continue to offer to the right cases long term.   

6. Where would you like to see your career path going next?

I am a lifelong learner and I crave novelty. When I graduated from veterinary school, I never would have pictured my career trajectory to date: primary care, oncology residency, clinical oncology, hospital ownership, medical director. So far my evolution has been progressively more people-focused (while remaining the person who wants to snuggle with every critter in the building!). First my own clients, then the clients and staff of the entire hospital, and now I am starting to look beyond my hospital for ways that I can influence and improve the lives of all specialists and beyond. 

7. What membership benefits offered by the ACVIM have helped you in your career?

I enjoyed clinical practice as a GP, but during my residency I felt an amplified sense of belonging within the specialist community, which continues for me to this day. Until my residency I had never thought of myself as a networker or a public speaker and over time the ACVIM has presented me with so many opportunities in all of these areas as well as intentional development of leadership skills. One of the most powerful benefits is the ACVIM Forum, for offering rich and varied content, as well as a time to see old friends and always make new ones.

8. What impact has the ACVIM had in shaping your career?

Becoming a specialist has provided me with a springboard to having influence well beyond my local clinical practice. It has opened the door to a national stage, to leadership resources and training, and to a broad network of professional colleagues who often become personal friends and resources. In many ways, the ACVIM is a foundation that inspires me to think big and be innovative. 

9. What is a piece of advice you would share with job seekers or offer a new Diplomate just beginning their career?

For clinical practice: I think the first and most important piece of advice is to be authentic. You are already the expert in the room, and you don’t have anything to prove, so don’t waste energy on creating some artificial persona – focus on real connection with your clients and team. It is OK to say that you don’t have all of the answers, or that you will look something up and get back to the client (or primary DVM). Trust, mutual respect, and curiosity will allow you to build relationships with clients and with teammates that supercharge your ability to practice good medicine and to build a positive work culture. Setting appropriate boundaries, leading with empathy, and practicing self-compassion set up the conditions for a sustainable, enjoyable clinical career.

10. Finally, what is something unique about your career, or career path?

My unusual (and prolonged) path to specialty medicine. I initially completed a rotating internship knowing that I intended to stay in general practice, and I am very sad that AVMA is actively discouraging the value of rotating internships (I am also sad that rotating interns are not paid appropriately as DVMs, which creates massive inequity in who can even financially consider those positions). I additionally perceive that there is a stigma of allowing DVMs from private GP practice to come back into a residency training program, but I think it would be good for our profession to change that – when I did my residency, I already knew how to talk with clients, how to deliver good and bad news, how to manage estimates and financial concerns, how to practice good general medicine, and how to work in a team – so I was free to focus on the medical training of an oncology residency without also navigating being a young professional. I was also in a better financial position to be able to enter a residency (which should also be paid a living wage). I think there is value in these life skills and the perspective that you gain from being in practice before entering advanced training. Expanding our idea of what makes a good residency candidate, and also systemically expanding and equalizing the access to that pathway, will only strengthen our entire industry.

Learn more about ACVIM and its members.