Encouraging vets to be ‘generalists’

01 November 2010, at 12:00am

visited the new home of a much changed practice in Coventry

THERE are two possible fates awaiting the holders of revolutionary ideas: they can either disappear from view or they enter the mainstream. And concepts considered dangerously radical and to be treated with fear and suspicion by the majority will often evolve into something that is accepted, even respected.

Such is the history of YourVets, the Coventry practice formerly known as the Pet Vaccination Clinic, which moved half a mile into new premises on the site of the old Standard Triumph car plant in September. 

The clinic raised eyebrows, and a few hackles, among neighbouring practices when it opened in 1997, offering low cost vaccinations for cat and dog owners. 

Its founder, Judy Walker, was working as vet for one of the animal welfare charities and had become distressed by the number of cases of parvovirus and other easily preventable diseases in the local pet population. She realised that there was a high proportion of unvaccinated dogs whose owners believed that they were unable to afford the costs of inoculating their pets.

Expanded range

As the business grew and opened three more branches in the West Midlands area, it began to expand the range of veterinary services on offer to include other routine preventive care such as worming and neutering.

Although the practice still faced accusations of cherry-picking the easily organised and more profitable elements of companion animal care, the staff insisted that they were providing essential treatment for animals that would never be seen within the walls of a conventional practice.

Nowadays, it would be difficult to sustain either position in that highly polarised argument. The four original practices were bought by Cornwall- based veterinary surgeon and businessman Jonathan Stirling in 2004.

Under the new management, the group has continued on its path towards the mainstream.

Its two new premises at Coventry and at Rayleigh in Essex are pretty well indistinguishable from any other gleaming new veterinary surgery – and they offer all the emergency and in- patient services that are difficult and costly to provide.

But one thing that hasn’t changed is the emphasis on providing value-for-money for pet owners who might well be unable to afford the extensive diagnostic work-ups and more expensive treatment options that are encouraged by practices at the top end of the service range.

‘Too dependent on insurance’

He fears that the small animal arm of the profession has become too dependent on the pet insurance market to sustain a growth in high-tech services.

“What we seem to have forgotten is that keeping a pet is not mandatory, it is voluntary. It is a lifestyle choice and consumer preferences can change. With that goes our livelihood because it is built on shifting sand. If the pet insurance market hits problems, then our profession is in serious trouble,” Jonathan Stirling warns.

“This practice has only a small percentage of insured clients and we want to keep it that way because we are looking after the pets owned by the Mr and Mrs Smiths who can’t afford an ever-rising insurance premium.”

A 1967 RVC graduate, Mr Stirling has a background in traditional farm practice and has retained a belief in the

virtues of providing clients with the best possible care at a price that they can afford. “It isn’t always necessary to treat a broken limb with external fixators: what is wrong with using a plaster of Paris cast if the results are OK and that is what the client really wants?”

Mr Stirling says the role of the staff at YourVets is to provide a good quality GP service. “We should do everything that we can do and do it well. But if something is beyond our level of competencies, then it is our duty to refer it on for specialist attention.”

He says the group has established a very good working relationship with local referrals centres like the Willows in Solihull and the Rainsbrook Veterinary Group in Leamington Spa.


One of the biggest problems that the group faces is in recruiting young veterinary surgeons who are content with the idea of spending their working lives as generalists. Too many new graduates are impatient to sign up for certificate training and develop specialised skills soon after beginning their career.

For that reason, he says that he prefers to take on new assistants who have spent a couple of years in mixed practice and through their dealings with farm clients have learned the importance of adopting pragmatic approaches to treatment, he says.

The group also places an emphasis on understanding the “branding” and general ethos of the practice when recruiting nursing and support staff.

The new clinic in Coventry is built in a former kindergarten and there is plenty of space in the waiting room for clients to make themselves comfortable and to interact with the nursing and reception staff.

This is a certainly a contrast with the old building in a row of shops which, he admits, was a cramped and sometimes stressful environment to work in.

Generous allowance

The new building has a generous allowance of six consulting rooms and the business is expected to grow from its current complement of five veterinary surgeons. The building will be operational 24 hours a day, providing emergency services for its own clients and those of two of the three branches – in Nuneaton and Stechford, Birmingham.

Back of house, there is also a good deal of scope for expansion beyond the current list of 14,000 active clients. There is a large prep area with two main and one dental table, a separate digital imaging suite, a main operating theatre and a separate high biosecurity theatre for orthopaedic operations.

Overall, the new premises occupies more than 600 square metres and the first task for the staff in adapting to their new surroundings is in suppressing any feelings of agrophobia.

“In the old building we were really on top of each other all the time,” said head veterinary surgeon Katie Wragg, who has been seven years with the practice.

“So it is difficult getting used to the amount of space. But I don’t suppose we will feel lonely for very long.”