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Sensible selection for an uncertain future

by
01 November 2016, at 12:00am

Periscope continues the series of reflections on issues of current concern.

LAST MONTH I WROTE ABOUT THE UNSUSTAINABILITY OF THE LONG HOURS CULTURE within the veterinary profession and how this was not necessarily the best way to be efficient and productive.

It seems that our profession is not alone in this propensity for long hours. The Education Policy Institute has examined data provided by the OECD which show that teachers in England are working an average 48-hour week, which is more than teachers in all but two of the 36 countries surveyed.

Anecdotally, many doctors also appear to be working longer hours than those in other parts of the world such as Australia. All of which adds up to increasing numbers of vets, teachers and doctors either leaving their chosen professions or heading abroad to work.

Competition to get into vet school or medical school is intense and yet all too often within a few years of graduating the “stuffing” has been knocked out of those originally highly-motivated graduates and many of them are ready to throw in the towel. 

The teaching profession, while not so heavily oversubscribed for the available training places, has similar problems with retention. Which leads to much talent, money and effort being largely wasted. Something tells me there is something very wrong going on this country. The statistics concerning doctors in Britain make interesting reading.

Of 150,000 doctors working for the NHS, an astonishing 25% of them are foreign. Without such a high level of recruitment from overseas the NHS would collapse and even with this influx of foreign talent, 7-10% of medical posts are vacant at any one time.

Making up the numbers

The situation regarding vets is not too dissimilar: 27% of those currently on the RCVS register originated from other European Union countries and vets from these countries now make up around half of the new registrants each year. It seems that there would be a very real shortage of vets in the UK without this constant supply from the continent to make up the numbers.

We now know that Brexit means Brexit and so we actually know nothing about what is going to happen in all sorts of ways and I fear that the politicians leading us down this path are just as much in the dark as the rest of us.

I was a committed “stay” voter and was dismayed by the result and I have since fluctuated between deep disappointment and concern, with the occasional optimistic surge that everything will turn out alright in the end.

The task ahead seems almost insurmountable; like the thought of moving house and having to finally clear out the loft and throw away all that clutter that has accumulated over the last 25 years. Though in the case of leaving Europe, the loft extends onwards into infinity and the clutter can’t even be distinguished from what one needs to keep.

So at present, among many other things, we don’t know how easy or difficult it is going to be to attract and/ or keep our veterinary colleagues from across the Channel.

But, looking on the bright side, maybe this is an opportunity to take a long look at our own requirements. In order to address some of the present shortages of home-grown talent we should perhaps decide to increase the number of veterinary student places at our own universities.

Hunting for training places

The current Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, has clearly taken this view with regard to training the doctors of the future. He recently announced that from 2018 the number of training places for medical students at universities in England will increase from 6,000 to 7,500 per year, coincidentally an increase of 25%.

There are sound reasons for doing this. Veterinary and medical courses have been many times oversubscribed for as long as I can remember and it is indisputable that many of those applicants who are rejected would make just as good a vet or doctor (better in some cases) than some of those who are selected.

Having sat on interview panels for potential university students (admittedly not for vet students) I am all too aware of the sometimes arbitrary nature of the selection process. So we are undoubtedly turning away a huge amount of talent and disappointing many, many students in the process.

Clearly there are dangers. We could train a lot more vets in the UK and then find that Brexit didn’t really mean Brexit at all and be left with a surplus of vets that forces already pretty poor salaries downwards.

Veterinary remuneration is driven almost entirely by market forces as we do not have the salary safety net afforded to the medics in the form of the NHS pay scales and career structure.

While any “surplus” of medics will be quickly “mopped up” by the ever- increasing medical requirements of an ageing population and the advances in techniques for keeping people alive for even longer periods, this is unlikely to be the case in the veterinary eld.

The demand for geriatric care in animals will not increase to the same extent, though there are worrying (in my view) signs that some members of the profession are already going beyond what I consider is ethical in terms of the palliative care of clearly dying animals.

The waiting game

The problem with increasing the number of vet students (and medics) is that it takes a long time for the process to bear fruit. The increased intake of medics in 2018 will not feed through until 2023 and the same would be true of veterinary students; by which time the effects of Brexit will be known but may turn out to be vastly different from what anyone has so far imagined.

Gazing into the future is always fraught with danger, even when there is a degree of certainty about which direction we are headed in. When the direction of travel is largely unknown and there is no map or sat-nav available, where we end up is as much related to chance, events and personalities as to any rational debate and planning.

One is reminded of the perceptive insight encapsulated in that old Chinese curse because just now, we live in interesting times indeed.