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A global perspective on the equine profession

Having led a diverse career with experience all over the world, Juan Samper talks about the profession now and what it might look like in the future

08 September 2018, at 8:00am

Tell us about your career so far

I was born in Colombia, South America, and, like most vets, always wanted to be a veterinarian. I grew up on a dairy farm and after vet school, I went into practice for a few years. Later, I went to the University of Minnesota to do graduate work; I did a master’s and a PhD, and ended up doing my speciality training in theriogenology/reproduction.

From there, I had the opportunity to work in Sweden for a couple of years before taking a job at the Ontario Veterinary College, Canada. A few years later, I moved to Vancouver and established my own practice, which was a speciality practice in reproduction that I grew to be an equine general practice with a focus on reproduction.

I also had the opportunity to be on the faculty at Kansas State for a few years. Several years ago, I joined the faculty at Ross University in the Caribbean, and I worked there with all the clinical year students. Most recently, I was offered a job as an associate dean for academic and student affairs at the University of Florida. I sold my practice and I came here, where I now work full time.

What did you learn during your time at the University of Ross in the Caribbean?

Ross University has a very interesting model of training veterinarians because, since they don’t have a large teaching hospital, they bring the students to the island for the first three years of their education and after that, they contract with different universities around the world (one of which is the RVC).

My job there was to assign students to their clinical affiliate and monitor their progress, making sure they were having the learning outcomes necessary for graduation according to the Ross and AVMA standards.

I had to visit every affiliate at least once a year, which gave me a very good perspective of what veterinary medical education is like around the world. Most of it was centred here in the United States, but I also had to go to Europe, Australia, New Zealand and Canada.

What I confirmed, and it wasn’t a big epiphany, was that there is no perfect school. Every school has a lot of strengths and a few weaknesses. And I think a lot of it is about what the student gets out of that experience. If they put the effort in and take ownership of that opportunity, it doesn’t matter what school they go to – they will be very well trained.

How have your views on the profession changed throughout your career?

Because of my experience, I really understood a lot of the infrastructure of veterinary medical education – what the strengths are and what we need to change. I think it is important to understand that veterinary schools must be very open-minded and dynamic in terms of what we do to train students. But also that we are not on our own – we have to partner with all these different stakeholders to make sure that this profession stays where it needs to be. If we accept a class of students and put them through our curriculum and they’re not supported out in practice, there is a disconnect. And then we are not producing what the practitioners need in terms of quality of day-one practitioners, and that disconnect will cause problems.

Would you say that the challenges are the same in the profession everywhere you’ve been, particularly with regards to recruitment and retention?

I think it’s the same everywhere, at least in Australia and New Zealand, Europe and North America. And it is even worse in equine practice. We’re not attracting enough veterinarians to come into equine practice and that needs to change. We have this idea engrained in the profession that every student who wants to be an equine practitioner has to do an internship first, and go and get a really low-paid salary because they need the experience, and only once they have that year of experience can we pay them a little bit more.

Many of my students have said “I want to go into equine practice but we have to work too many hours and don’t get paid enough”. That’s certainly prevalent in North America. The UK is probably a little bit better because there is more the concept of multi-people practice.

Do you think it is looking positive now there is more focus on tackling these problems?

We are at that crossroads where we can decide to make it look more positive or continue with what we have been doing. It has to be a discipline-wide change of culture and mentality. That’s where we really need to start to focus, and I think BEVA and AAEP [American Association of Equine Practitioners] will have a significant role to play in this.

Ultimately, it’s going to be down to the individual practitioners, but we cannot keep thinking that “because I did it this way, the next person has to do it that way too”. And that’s a difficult thing because, for the most part, those people are requiring students to do it one way because they did it that way and are very successful. It is difficult to argue against those principles, particularly when change sometimes requires going into the unknown. There has got to be a connection of how students are being trained and what they’re going to do in practice. A lot of the mental illness is related to how students are treated in practice. We have to look at all these different facets – what kind of student we are trying to attract, how we treat them while they’re in vet school and how they are supported and treated once they’re thrown out into the big pond.

Have you worked much with BEVA in the past?

In the late 90s, Jonathan Pycock and I started delivering a BEVA-sanctioned course on artificial insemination. I went over to the UK to do that for a few years. More recently I haven’t been that involved with BEVA – until Jon invited me to participate in this year’s congress.

I am honoured to have been asked to deliver the John Hickman memorial lecture at the 2018 BEVA Congress. My talk won’t be a lecture, more my thoughts and views on where we are and where we’re going. I can almost guarantee that in the next few years (how few, I don’t know), the way we practice medicine is going to be very, very different. If we don’t keep up with the times, we might just be left behind. And those that embrace technology and change are the ones that will move forward.

What do you think are the biggest innovations that equine vets will need to embrace?

In human medicine, they’ve moved towards personalised medicine; I think we are starting to feel that we are moving that way. The ability to acquire or generate data is happening at an unprecedented pace. So now we just need to be able to analyse that data and make sense of it – and that is also happening. When we are able to analyse it and put small groups of individual research groups together to generate robust information, there will be significant changes. It won’t be long before the first part of taking a history will be running the genome of an animal. From there, you can argue that you can look at this animal’s history back and forward, and alter how you’re going to design preventative therapies, treat or prevent a condition. I don’t know that I’m going to be around to see the full impact, but I’d love to be a fly on the wall 30 years from now.

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