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Time to recognise the excellent qualities of our nursing staff

by
01 March 2015, at 12:00am

THE MERCURY COLUMN in which a guest columnist takes the temperature of the profession - and the world around

THE worldwide increase in interest in feline medicine is both a recognition that cats are not small dogs and that cats can make an excellent alternative to dogs as a pet for widely differing reasons.

I was intrigued to learn that, since the International Society for Feline Medicine (ISFM) launched a nursing membership category in November, around 3,000 people doing a veterinary nursing job have joined.

It’s true that membership is free and, to some extent, that may have influenced the rush to join up but ISFM recognises that nurses are less well paid than many other parts of our veterinary spectrum and should be applauded for such an initiative.

The fact that nursing members come not just from the UK but from as far away as Australia and the US is testament to what we all know but seldom discuss and it is because of this amazing commitment to animal welfare and veterinary medicine that veterinary practice for all species is delivered at such a high level in so many countries.

Here in the UK, it is sometimes tempting to take our nursing staff for granted in that easy description of “the veterinary team” and, quite clearly, the most efficient practices are able to deliver teamwork really effectively.

However, one only has to talk to any veterinary client to discover that, far from the mop-andbucket image that was still prevalent 30 years ago, the clients’ impression of the service we deliver largely revolves around the bridge of shared communication that a good nurse builds between the practice and the public at large.

In many ways, veterinary practice has become a numbers game and every corporate provider of veterinary services will have to hand the metrics that distinguish their business from the others. Private practice may be less well equipped with such data but, over the years, business performance has come to revolve around some shared KPIs – a term which still strikes fear into the hearts of a number of us.

Of course, any business must have some measures of performance and some of these will be more important than others but many of us who have spent time in industry have come to realise that if you reward staff for their performance against a small number of key indicators, you can very soon get people entirely focused on that limited list of criteria and a rapid falling away in other, less well monitored areas of performance.

Happy and satisfied should be the priority

Business disciplines are all well and good but maintaining a fund of happy, satisfied customers is the key priority if any of us is to remain in business for any length of time.

In so many of our businesses, remarkably low amounts of the marketing resources available to us are spent on maintaining client numbers rather than in attracting clients which is where most of our spend takes place. Perhaps we think that, if we do the job properly, we don’t need to commit resources to that but our clients think differently. Over and above our veterinary skills, it is the communication provided by our nursing staff which keeps the clients coming back.

One of the most spectacular examples of this is the story of the practice which, as an experiment, asked a nurse to give up her normal tasks for a month and, instead, to meet and greet clients and to walk clients back to their cars, carrying the cat basket or just holding the dog’s lead.

In the process, she asked if they’d understood everything that the vet had said, asked if there were any questions and there invariably were, and offered her mobile phone number should any further questions arise once the pet had been taken home.

Not only did the previous attrition in client numbers dry up, word of mouth recommendations increased and active client numbers began to rise.

Regrettably, the recession arrived, client spending started to fall and the nurse was drafted back to “normal” duties as the challenge to business income and staffing levels began to bite.

From a distance, it seems absolutely clear that the practice should have continued the experiment and made the service concrete but there’s nothing like a challenge to the bottom line to send many of us rushing for the comparative safety of convention. I’ve lost touch with the people over the years but have written myself a mental note to go and find out if they’ve revived the “experiment”.

Someone wiser than I am once reminded me that veterinary medicine is not an animal business but is, instead, a people business using animals as a platform.

Nurses are ideally placed to help educate the public and to encourage the things which we all hold dear – whether they be responsible pet ownership, proper nutrition, vaccination, parasite control or the principles of herd health.

In some cases, nurses can have an ever bigger role to play and it is good to see the PDSA encouraging nurses to take a role in combatting poor dog behaviour by actively promoting education about the issue to pet owners and other members of the public.

By 2015, it would seem that the principles of responsible pet ownership should be commonly recognised by all but the opposite appears to be true with a lack of training and socialisation in a large number of dogs creating the beginnings of what has been called “behaviour meltdown” in some quarters.

Examining relationships

Animal behaviourists have long argued that tackling anti-social behaviour in dogs first requires an examination of the relationship between the dog and its owner and the PDSA’s recent findings that 1.5 million dogs have not been properly socialised as puppies, 30% of owners have been bitten or attacked by a dog and that more than 800,000 dogs are never taken for a walk off the lead and 250,000 have never been walked on a lead, are alarming.

Is it any wonder that more than 60% of pet owners admit to having been concerned or frightened by another dog’s behaviour? In practice, the numbers of dogs being euthanased because of behavioural issues is steadily rising and so many of these issues are avoidable – or at least could have been avoidable with proper education and training for the dog/ owner partnership.

The last thing this profession needs is a general antipathy towards pet ownership and we all share the responsibility to get out there, beyond the safe confines of our own practice client base, to engage with the public, whether they currently have a pet or not.

Many observations and misconceptions are based on ignorance rather than a wilful decision to be anarchic and we all have a role to play in preventing animals and their owners from going down the wrong road. Within our practices, we have a precious and willing resource in our nurses, whether they be qualified or not.

Recognition of the skill, competence and excellent ambassadorial qualities of our nursing staff costs us very little and, for many of us, is all too rarely top of mind.