“Young solo vets carrying a bag of drugs into an urban housing estate: what could go wrong?”

28 January 2020, at 9:00am

There have been many changes in the veterinary profession over the last few years. One thing has been the onus moved from vets to owners for being responsible for their pets’ medical care and transport out of hours.

A brief history lesson is worth reviewing here. The key turning point came in 2013, when the RCVS struck off a vet, in large part because he “unreasonably delayed” doing a home visit. Vets back then were under professional obligation to perform emergency home visits if the owner requested it. There were many stories of vets being called to dangerous parts of cities to attend pets. Young solo vets carrying a bag of drugs into an urban housing estate: what could go wrong?

We all went out because we knew that we faced the RCVS if we did not and the owner complained. The owners’ wishes were clearly placed higher than our safety and welfare. It was not acceptable to ask owners to arrange their own transport. It was a major cause of concern for vets and also for their other patients who could not be seen in emergencies whilst the vet was driving round on a home visit. I can remember being called out to very demanding clients who lived some way from the practice as their dog was ill and they had drunk too much to drive. Off I went, leaving the practice and its many other potential emergencies and inpatients behind. As more practices subcontracted their out of hours work, fewer vets were responsible for more clients (and inpatients) out of hours. Leaving the clinic to do a home visit became more impractical. This came to a head with the RCVS case outlined above.

After that had happened, there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth in the profession as we all realised “that could have been me”. A young veterinary journalist I know well did some undercover work. He rang the practices owned by the five vets that were on the disciplinary committee (DC) at the time of the case who struck off the vet. Out of these some had contracted out their out of hours work and some did their own. He posed as a client with an almost identical situation which led to the striking off. Out of those DC vets' practices, only one practice vet offered to come straight out. Some refused point blank, one even laughed at the idea. So, vets of the RCVS DC who had just stripped a vet of his career for not doing an out of hours home visit owned practices that would have also refused to do a home visit in a similar situation to the case. This article (published in the Veterinary Review) caused a bit of a stir. Around the same time, Jo Dyer was running for RCVS council membership with the issue of home visits as a mainstay of her campaign and was elected.

So much for the history lesson – where are we now? Well, from being highly critical of the RCVS pre-2013, things have changed a lot. I am sure second only to Veterinary Practice magazine, all of your favourite veterinary reading will be the RCVS code of professional conduct. In case this isn’t on your bedside table and well-thumbed, highlighted below are a few sections from the code to show how things have improved for vets in terms of what is expected of us now.

For those of us who worked under the fear of RCVS action if we did not schlep out to all and sundry who demanded it, the wording could not be imagined. The RCVS now supports vets’ welfare in this regard and clearly reminds the owners that these are their pets and their responsibility.

After all this, I still do plenty of out of hours home visits. But I know most of my clients and live in a very low crime rate area. For the vets working in large urban areas, or dedicated out of hours vets, the new wording in the code is a great step forward for the welfare of vets.

RCVS guidelines

3.21 Owners are responsible for transporting their animals to a veterinary practice, including in emergency situations. The RCVS encourages owners to think about how they can do this and make plans before an emergency arises.

3.22 In all but exceptional circumstances, the interests of companion animals will be best served by being taken to a veterinary practice, where the attending veterinary surgeon has access to a full range of equipment, veterinary medicines and appropriate facilities.

3.39 Veterinary surgeons are not obliged to attend away from the practice, unless in their professional judgement it is appropriate to do so.

3.40 RCVS disciplinary action in relation to refusal to attend away from the practice will be considered where there has been a wilful disregard for animal welfare.