Relationship between cart and horse a little confused

01 August 2014, at 1:00am

The Mercury Column, in which a guest columnist takes the temperature of the profession – and the world around

ALL the fuss about post-nominals is of real interest to the profession as a whole and, one suspects, of particular interest to all individuals who have worked long and hard for those few initials after their names.

A hasty straw poll among veterinary surgeons has shown a variety of emotions ranging from outrage at one end of the spectrum to utter disbelief at the other with a healthy dose of cynicism somewhere near the middle; but the discussion shouldn’t really be about what we, inside the profession, think about this but, rather, what the public might think, given the inescapable fact that the regulator is bound by statute to protect the interests of the public and not those whom it regulates.

As always, one is left feeling that the relationship between the cart and the horse has become a little confused.

When we come to look at what the public wants or, to be more specific, veterinary clients of every type, surely it is important for them to be able to find meaningful information simply and effectively and for that information to be reliable.

As consumers, pet owners, horse and yard owners, farmers and all our other clients should be able to rely on a straightforward method of differentiating between providers of veterinary services without resorting to some form of codified messaging.

There is no need to throw out the strange and outwardly inexplicable ways in which we differentiate between qualifications achieved at our veterinary schools or for post-graduate study but surely this is the golden opportunity to demystify some of our more unintelligible messaging and to provide the information in an easily assimilated manner so that people outside the profession can understand the things that, within the profession, we hold to be important.

Is that the role of the regulator? The answer is probably yes because it is the RCVS which has the responsibility of keeping the public properly informed.

Is there an opportunity here for other veterinary associations to make a positive impact in bridging the gap between our profession and the apparently diminishing number of clients? Of course there is and, while we’re about it, why not get our heads together, across the species divide, and come up with some cracking pieces of communication to let the public know what a great job this profession does?

Why are we waiting? 

One could grow weary waiting for this profession to set aside its professional differences and work together to propose a uni ed front with positive and encouraging messages and we fool ourselves if we think either that someone else will do it or that it doesn’t matter.

It does matter. It matters enormously because not only is the face of veterinary practice changing, there are more and more opportunities for our clients – real and potential – to buy many of the elective veterinary services elsewhere and not from practice.

If we think about it, small animal practice is built without foundations; other than for emergency medical work on people’s pets, the continuance of a relationship between pet owner and vet is predicated on the continuance of the relationship. If that sounds like a pleonasm, it probably is but how much ongoing work do we invest in maintaining that relationship?

If one is a regular in a pub, someone behind the bar makes an effort to learn our name and what we like to drink and, if I overdo the purchase of nice things in my local Greek deli, Spyros will throw in a baklava, free, to recognise how much he values my custom. He also e-mails me to tell me about things going on in his shop and invariably asks if everything is all right.

That’s simple relationship building but, all too often, our clients see a different vet every time they come in and, when did most of us ever ask for feedback from our clients? How can we provide what they want when we don’t know what they want because we haven’t asked them?

The veterinary landscape is changing rapidly. The recent merging of the two leading joint venture partnership groups has produced a large, well-run, consumer-friendly operation which has already made significant changes to the ways in which pet-owning consumers can interact with their small animal practice.

Over time, we can safely conclude that many more changes are to come and that the overall ratio of “corporate” practices compared to traditional ones will continue to develop. If you had been asked whether “corporates” would amount to 35% of UK practices even 10 years ago, most of us would have thought that unlikely.

Look forward a year or two and that figure looks conservative. I’m not even sure whether the term “corporate” even means very much today as most individual practices now belong to some form of association or buying group where some of the administrative functions and the access to better trading rates are handled by another organisation.

For most people outside the profession, their principal concern is to be seen when they want to be seen, to get a result and for the whole process to be seamless and hassle-free.

If we insist on questioning whether the post-nominals are meaningful to the public, we will end up encouraging our clients to believe that there is no meaningful difference between us. In that situation, getting together to speak with one voice will be akin to bolting the door after the horse has left.

No problem though, we’d probably find it still arguing with the cart.