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Why empowering veterinary nurses is good for everyone

by
01 March 2016, at 12:00am

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

I HAVE WRITTEN BEFORE ABOUT THE IMPORTANCE OF VETERINARY NURSES to the profession. The time seems right to return to the subject in the light of results from a recent survey carried out by VNs working for the company Independent Vetcare.

The survey appears to show that a large number of those nurses questioned feel underused and undervalued, with not enough respect shown by vets for what they do. This isn’t just disturbing; in my view it is very sad too.

Qualifying as a VN is a difficult goal to reach. So anyone who has managed to achieve both the academic requirements and the practical skills is worthy of a great deal of respect from everyone, and in particular from vets.

Of course there will always be some vets who look down on VNs as little more than glorified kennel assistants, but in my experience that type of vet tends to look down on everybody and usually has an unshakeable belief in their own ability and infallibility.

They have the same attitude to assistant vets too and having listened to some of them on numerous occasions bemoaning the fact that they can’t find and keep the right type of staff, I marvel that they can’t take a step back and see the obvious reason why. I once tried to enlighten someone and nearly lost a friend as a result, so now I keep my own counsel and just murmur in a non-committed fashion.

It appears that one of the reasons for VNs feeling so undervalued is that they are rarely given opportunities to do some of the tasks they are permitted to do such as stitch-ups and lump removals. This is a shame though I can see why this might come about in that often the vet is needed to administer the anaesthetic and so they may as well then get on and finish the job.

VNs, like people in all walks of life, are a varied bunch. There are the incredibly gifted; the plodders; and a wide spectrum in between. There are niches for all in any veterinary practice bigger than a one-man (woman) band.

They each bring something to the table and good managers need to be able to identify each nurse’s skills and limitations, and also to understand each individual’s aspirations and how they, the employer can help them to achieve those goals.

Remember that not everyone wants to push themselves in their career, but those who do are very likely to get frustrated if they are not given the opportunity to develop and if they don’t feel challenged. This is one of the very real problems that needs to be addressed.

One area where the more aspirant nurses can really be put to good use is in nurse-led clinics. Some of the more progressive practices are already way along the road in this respect and the public seem very accepting of them in the right context and at the right price (they are often free). For those vet nurses who want to be challenged this is a very real option because it can involve using a lot of the skills that they have learnt during their training; skills they have hopefully continued to develop during their working career.

Challenges and rewards

Bringing all these skills together in a nurse-led clinic, covering an area about which the nurse has a particular interest, can bring both huge challenges and huge rewards.

If the owners of practices recognise the value of such clinics and reward the nurses who run them appropriately (which will no doubt mean some salary increase but equally importantly, an increase in status and kudos within the practice), it is very likely to increase job satisfaction. Increased job satisfaction means improved staff morale and increased staff retention. All of which means a better service to the clients, a happier client base, and almost inevitably increased turnover and profits.

So why do practices with a high turnover of staff continue on their merry way oblivious to the issues and seemingly unwilling to change? It beats me because they are certainly missing a trick. As a profession, let’s really try hard over the next year to value all our staff, but in particular our nurses. And let’s also let them know how much they’re valued. Not through some management speak recognition process but by genuinely treating them with the respect they deserve and helping them to realise their professional goals and dreams.

Another important issue that was brought to my attention this month was the start of the campaign, “Think ahead: wear a hard hat around horses.” This was launched by vet Dr Jill Butterworth and follows on from a 2014 BEVA survey that named “equine vet” as the most dangerous civilian occupation.

I know there are plenty of people out there who will huff and puff about this and ask if vets are becoming softer than they used to be. But the tragedies that occur, some of which might have been avoided or at least mitigated by the wearing of a hard hat, should be enough to silence such outdated claptrap.

Back in the sixties and seventies, the death rate among Formula 1 drivers was, by today’s standards, an international disgrace. Sir Jackie Stewart was instrumental in pressing for improved driver safety, having concluded that someone who drove continuously during the years when he was driving had a two in three chance of being killed.

He was not universally popular when he began his campaign, with many accusing him of being scared and taking the romance out of the sport. But his persistence paid off and since Ayrton Senna’s death in 1994, only one driver, Jules Bianchi in 2015, has died from injuries sustained in Formula 1. And as a spectator sport it is probably more popular than ever.

So, let the dinosaurs huff and puff and come up with all the ludicrous excuses they can muster about why equine vets shouldn’t wear helmets when examining horses. Those of us with any sense should welcome this campaign and put our full weight behind it.