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Survey gives us a wake-up call for what?

by
01 October 2015, at 1:00am

PERISCOPE continues the series of reflections on issues of current concern

I FEEL miserable whenever I read the results of a survey that demonstrates a large percentage of the profession are unhappy with their chosen career and that a significant proportion would like to leave.

It is not so much the findings that make me unhappy, more the fact that surveys of this nature have been coming out with similar results for as long as I can remember and nothing much seems to change.

BVA president John Blackwell is reported as saying the results are “a wake-up call to the profession” and must be addressed if the profession is to remain sustainable. A “wake-up call” to do what? And in reality what can realistically be done to change it?

Reasons to be miserable

I became fed up with clinical practice after working in it for six years. It wasn’t so much the work I tired of, more the long hours and lack of financial reward and recognition. I reasoned that if I was to have kids and to spend time with them and watch them grow up, then working in practice simply wasn’t an option.

Instead I pursued a “career” that encompassed working overseas, followed by working for the UK State Veterinary Service and now teaching. I’m still not quite sure how I managed to bumble along for so long and earn an honest crust without committing over heavily to “the cause”, but I guess I must have had a guardian angel who smiled on me somewhere along the line.

So, the current dissatisfaction must be “urgently addressed” and there will no doubt be much talking and soul searching. But as to finding a solution? That is where I have very serious doubts.

I would have hoped that the emergence of Emergency Clinics would have had a significant impact on the attractiveness of veterinary practice by largely removing the burden of providing 24-hour out-of-hours cover. Sadly, as confirmed by the recent survey, this does not appear to have been the case. So what is it that so aggrieves those in practice and what can be done to rectify it?

The proliferation of reality TV programmes that showcase the work of vets must shoulder some of the blame. I will admit to trying to avoid with a passion such viewing, because in my experience the shows promote veterinary practice in a very sugary-sweet light.

The protagonists invariably appear only too keen to demonstrate their devotion to their “calling” and their willingness to do whatever it takes to get a “result”.

One never hears a moan or a groan about the unreasonable clients or the cases that remain a mystery when it comes to reaching a diagnosis.

On TV, cases rarely remain unsolved and the relevant emotion-laden music is always to hand. There are lots of smiles and platitudes and interviews with grateful clients (there never appear to be any difficult or demanding ones) who can never speak highly enough of their preferred veterinary practitioner who is usually seen quietly bathing in the accolades in a humble and modest manner.

Any wonder then that potential veterinary students feel anything other than vindicated in their choice of career when they see “celebrity” vets apparently having just the best time possible at work. Any wonder that they join the profession expecting to earn both high salaries and to be revered by a devoted client base.

Even out with the spotlight of the TV camera we are all probably guilty of being a little economical with the truth. How many of you out there when confronted by a school kid who is passionate about becoming a vet, sit them down and explain some of the challenges and realities of working in a small to medium sized first opinion veterinary practice? I suspect none of you.

Instead we perpetuate the myth that all is a garden of roses, perhaps feeling that to voice any concerns or to urge realism would be to somehow betray our chosen profession or perhaps shatter a young person’s dream. How much better though for that young person to really know what they are letting themselves in for before they embark on what is a time-consuming, demanding, and hugely expensive course.

However, even if those setting out to be vets had a more realistic perspective of what the job might be like, I still suspect that many of them would very quickly become jaded by the reality of veterinary practice and the attendant lifestyle post-graduation.

In my view the veterinary profession and its working hours and practices have fallen far behind many of the equivalent professions in terms of remuneration, number of hours worked, and any additional benefits on offer.

At the same time the public has become increasingly demanding and there is certainly little deference shown to the experience and opinion of a professional when just about everyone has it at their fingertips to become an instant “expert” simply by clicking on a few relevant, or not so relevant, websites.

Faced with the prospect of having every diagnosis and proposed course of action challenged, is it any wonder that many vets start to consider that such a highly pressured and possibly confrontational career really isn’t all it was cracked up to be? And certainly not one that they see themselves wanting to pursue for the next five years, let alone 30?

What’s the answer to this? Sadly I don’t have one any more than anyone else has come up with an answer over the last few decades. That a problem exists is clear but there are probably numerous reasons and combinations of reasons to explain this.

The solution to these problems, however, remains elusive because most possible solutions (e.g. fewer hours worked; more pay; more supportive environment; more time to “work up” less straightforward cases; a clearer pathway for referral and feedback on referred cases) all boil down to the economic realities of veterinary practice which, despite the increasingly widespread adoption of pet health insurance, are not lucrative realities.

I don’t like ending on a negative note but I suspect that surveys undertaken in five, 10 or 20 years will continue to show similar levels of dissatisfaction. So maybe it is just as well that there are now more veterinary schools training even more vets to replace those who can’t or simply don’t want to tolerate the sometimes harsh reality of a life in veterinary practice.