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“Maybe more personal support on a daily basis is the key to keeping people happy”

13 March 2019, at 10:09a.m.

“Daddy… Daddy! Can we ask you a question?” asked my three sons 15 years ago, when they were seven, five and three years old. “What would you like us to be when we grow up?” Well, that was easy. “Happy!” I replied. “No!” they cried, “What you would like us to do?” That was a completely different question – one that I couldn’t answer. That would be for them to decide in years to come.

Now Sam, having done earth sciences at university while spending much of his time acting, teaches kids to computer code while co-running a physical theatre company. Jack is at Swansea reading zoology with rock climbing – as a hobby not a joint honours degree – while Ross’s life is immersed in playing the oboe at the Royal Scottish Conservatoire. I could never have predicted those career paths, but hopefully I was right on the happiness front.

I couldn’t be so confident about the happiness levels of vets, it would seem. The Vet Record told us on its front cover recently that 37 percent were thinking of leaving the profession. This hasn’t been the impression I’ve had while on my ambulatory referral service seeing ophthalmic patients in around 30 veterinary practices.

I’ve asked vets I met over the past fortnight whether they were thinking of leaving the profession. They were all rather surprised at this question but when I explained that I wanted to see if that 37 percent was mirrored in the vets I encountered, almost all (47 out of 50) said they were happy to stay as vets.

Many said they had wanted to be a vet since their youth and that hadn’t changed. Several were looking for a pay rise or not to work over Christmas but only three reflected that they were thinking of leaving. There is a problem here though, which revolves around two words with which you may not be familiar: ontology and epistemology.

Wikipedia tells us that ontology is “the philosophical study of being”. Basically, ontology asks what is out there in the world. In the situation we are discussing, it is to ask the question: “What do vets actually think?” What then of epistemology? That is the philosophical study of knowing. How can we really know what vets are thinking?

Maybe you can now see the problem. Here I am, bouncing up in my bow tie with a broad smile on my face and I ask, “Are you thinking of leaving the profession?” Am I likely to get a truthful answer or are people more likely to fudge the issue rather than telling me what they really think?

Here’s the difference between quantitative and qualitative research. Evaluating the effect of an antiviral compound on a cell culture infected with herpesvirus or seeing what giving a tear replacement drop does to dogs with dry eye results in numbers. They don’t change with the way one does the counting, be it number of cells killed by the virus or changes in Schirmer tear test values.

But ask people what they think and the result might change with the way the question is asked. That’s because the researcher is interacting with their informants. And I wonder whether that too is the crucial element in keeping vets in the profession.

I’m not sure whether the three people I talked to who were considering whether to leave had talked to many about their worries. To return to where we started today, maybe more personal support on a daily basis is the key to keeping people happy, which is what we must all want them to be.

Associate Lecturer, Veterinary Ophthalmology at St John's College, University of Cambridge

David Williams, MA, VetMB, PhD, CertVOphthal, CertWEL, FHEA, FRCVS, graduated from Cambridge in 1988 and has worked in veterinary ophthalmology at the Animal Health Trust. He gained his Certificate in Veterinary Ophthalmology before undertaking a PhD at the RVC. David now teaches at St John’s College, Cambridge.

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