The UK veterinary profession is suffering.

While a documented shortage of graduates does not exist as in previous years, significantly less fuss has been kicked up about the announcement of the new Aberystwyth-in-conjunction-with-RVC vet school, compared with the opening of the Surrey Vet School in 2014.

surreyvetschool
Surrey Vet School: a bolt from the blue?

Is this because we knew Aberystwyth was in the pipeline so are not shocked by the announcement, or has the profession kept quiet because we do need more vets?

The problem is not a lack of graduates, but a lack of “experienced vets” and a shortage of vets staying in the profession after a few years of graduation.

This begs the question: why?

The simple answer is, as shown in last year’s “Voices from the future of the veterinary profession” survey conducted by Vet Futures, the profession, in its current state, does not meet expectations of those entering it.

Essentially, we feel undervalued, underpaid and overworked, and lack a sense of life outside veterinary.

Undervalued

The profession has an image problem, in many respects. It is becoming more commercialised, not just because of corporate takeover, but because clients expect more.

We seem to be moving away from the respected professionals who have dedicated their lives to helping animals and, as such, are praised for performing little short of a miracle in medical and surgical feats, and towards the providers of a service that, if not absolutely perfect and costs next to nothing, will only be complained about and bad-mouthed to other customers and competitors.

Sadly, the economic climate has caused much scaremongering, bringing vets to the absolute disposal of the pet owner for fear of losing clients and, therefore, not being able to balance the books.

I feel very strongly part of the reason our services are so undervalued is the NHS (See Jordan’s July 2014 blog post, “I Blame the NHS“).

The everyday person has no concept of how much medical procedures, diagnostics and therapeutics cost. I’ve done the research – prices for private medical care are found fairly easily, but NHS costs? Nigh impossible.

So how can we blame the public for not having a clue how much a radiograph costs? The public perception of veterinary in this country needs to change and I don’t think it will without transparency on human medical costs in conjunction with our veterinary ones.

Overworked

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“I struggle to see how many full-time vets’ hours fall within the legal limit,” says Jordan. Image © alarts / Fotolia.

Depending on the kind of practice you’re in, or going into, the relative feeling of being overworked will differ. I realise my points won’t apply to every practice in the country and this is sweeping general opinion on the UK profession as a whole. However, I struggle to see how many full-time vets’ hours fall within the legal limit.

The legislation is complex, with loopholes in the Working Time Regulations 1998 (WTR) possibly allowing certain practices to skirt round some of the “rules”, such as the designated 11-hour consecutive rest break in each 24-hour period and the minimum 24-hour rest break in each 7-day period.

On-call work is difficult to classify, but, in essence, the signing of a workforce agreement (probably as part of an employment contract) means the employee is agreeing to to provide out-of-hours cover that impinges on these designated rest breaks.

Some final year rotations at university I know are well beyond the limits set by the WTR (although the legality is sketchy since we’re not employed while we’re students).

“It’s not a nine-to-five job,” was a comment given with regard to rotation hours. That’s tough love: you’re going to be worked into the ground when you qualify, so you may as well get used to it now. But why? Why can’t veterinary be a nine-to-five job? It certainly is in other countries.

The profession is changing and I really hope this is the kind of change that comes about nationwide. With the increasing popularity of outsourced out-of-hours cover and shift work, why can’t a vet clock off at 5pm, enjoy some exercise, cooking, social activity, whatever and come back to work refreshed the next day ready to put in 110%?

Achieving work-life balance

We have numerous talks at uni about mental health awareness and the importance of work-life balance. But how is it possible to achieve a work-life balance if you’re working from 8am to 8pm and, even on the nights you’re not on call, you essentially only have time to grab something to eat and sleep.

What kind of life is that?

work/life
“It’s all very well lecturing us on being conscious of having a work-life balance, but what if it is beyond our control?” Image © DOC RABE Media / Fotolia.

It’s all very well lecturing us on being conscious of having a work-life balance, but what if it is beyond our control, as in so many cases?

I know for a fact, if the profession remains stuck in its ways, I will become just another statistic and leave the UK, if not the profession entirely, within a few years.

Don’t get me wrong, I have loved my rotations so far and the sense of fulfilment when I’m actually getting a handle on things is excellent, but I know I will resent my job if it does not allow for some enjoyment outside of veterinary.

But will it ever change? I think something has to give soon, or the profession will find itself in dire straits before long. How would change come about? If we wait for one practice or chain to provide a great work-life balance and rely on the trend to catch on, I think we’ll be waiting a lifetime. But what if the regulations changed?

I don’t really want to talk about Brexit (I’m sure a little piece of me dies inside every time that word is uttered), but the potential change to employment law (which has mainly been derived from the EU) could allow for changes specific to medical professions to protect us from “burnout”.

Overtime pay should exist in the veterinary world, as it does in any other “normal” job, allowing for those maniacs who want to work 24 hours a day to do so at their leisure (or those who need the extra cash), but not at the detriment to those who don’t wish to. Working out a vet’s base salary as an hourly basis is just depressing. And it shouldn’t be.

I keep hearing phrases such as “the profession is changing” and “it’s an exciting time”. I genuinely hope that is the case and we become the progressive generation we like to think we are, and drag the profession kicking and screaming with us into the modern world of enjoying life outside veterinary and moulding our careers around our lives – not the other way around.

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21 Comments on "Change for the better"

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M Cameron
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M Cameron
4 months 3 days ago

I’m at the tail end of my veterinary career which has had its ups & downs. I do believe we need to make changes across the board to support vets & give them a decent work-life balance.

ross milner B.V.Sc, MRCVS
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ross milner B.V.Sc, MRCVS
4 months 3 days ago
Ive been a partner in a practice for many years, sold up and then locumed for a couple of years before completing a planned emigration . It was interesting working as an assistant again. I worked in all sorts of practices. I found it rewarding working alongside specialists in hospitals where I was learning something new, despite long hours. I enjoyed working in more basic practices where there was a nice atmosphere and the aim was still to do things to the highest standard despite limitations and learnt new ideas there as well. I felt that working in a rewarding… Read more »
Rose
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Rose
4 months 3 days ago
I too am at the tail end of my career. I feel nothing but pity for today’s graduates. When I started out, yes, I worked ridiculous hours, any concept of a personal life was ludicrous. I gave it my all. In return though I had the best job in the world. Clients respected me, I felt I made a difference. I enjoyed my work. Forty years later I still love my job, I still work weekends, I still finish work later than any of my friends. I earn a laughable salary when compared to a NHS GP, My pension is… Read more »
Catherine
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Catherine
4 months 1 day ago
As a fellow final year vet student I can’t agree with you more Jordan! I really don’t want to work all hours of the day for mediocre pay. I am, however, excited at where my career as a vet will take me in areas outside of clinical practice where I think, with an open mind, there are much better prospects for career progression and a work life balance. I actually feel very sorry for my friends who cannot see a career anywhere other than clinical practice as I worry the changes in working conditions we desire will not happen quickly… Read more »
Lauren Barry
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Lauren Barry
4 months 1 day ago
I’m not sure the NHS is entirely to blame, I work as a small animal vet in the USA, having graduated and worked in the uk for 5 yrs prior to to moving out here. Despite human private medical insurance being the norm here, few people have pet insurance (poor policies, high premiums and exclusions to boot). Owners don’t actually pay attention to their doctor bills, they balk at the cost of xray and argue about sedation costs so we don’t irradiate ourselves while imaging their pet. I think the problem lies with the “it’s just a dog/cat” attitude, and… Read more »
A
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A
4 months 1 day ago
I fear for the future of the veterinary profession. With all business becoming corporate, is this not going to put pressure on independent practices (who tend to offer better work life balance and pay than their corporate counterparts) to push prices down to the point where they are being bought by corporate businesses? Which in turn will not cause increases in our salary. Instead, corporate veterinary practice is a cash cow where staff are worked to their limit and it does not bode well on the professions image. With Independent Vetcare buying practices at an alarming rate, Vets4Pets opening new… Read more »
AMoore
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AMoore
4 months 1 day ago
I sit here in the 15th hour of my working day, half way through my shift at the dog track because working 50+ hours a week in my own practice does not pay me enough, while by husband looks after our 2 year old. Once I finish I will not be heading home to bed but back to my practice to check on the cat I admitted and put on fluids before I left this evening. I often wonder how sustainable this is and feel frustration when I hear medics of a similar age to me complain about their contracts… Read more »
Kathleen
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Kathleen
4 months 1 day ago

This is one of the best articles I have read on the subject. Well done for describing the profession so accurately at such an early stage in your career! I am sadly one of the vets trying to get out desperately! But struggling to apply my narrow skill set elsewhere! Ps totally agree our main problem is high expectations of clients who do not have a realistic grasp of finance

Louise Scott RVN
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Louise Scott RVN
4 months 1 day ago

Great article. More of these types of articles need to be published for not just peers to read but the public too. They have no idea how hard you / we all work. We all need to take care of each other in order of this profession to succeed and continue.
🙂

Tom Bury
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Tom Bury
4 months 1 day ago
It’s interesting to see vet students acutely aware of the reality before they’re in it. My class definitely weren’t aware of it. A lot is certainly true about the lack of public understanding of the cost of medical care. However, who is going to educate them? That is ultimately our job as vets if we want to shape the profession. It’s easy to put the blame outside our control. But here’s another view as a clinical director. Maybe we as a profession are letting the team down. Vets need to value themselves, their expertise and their professional time before the… Read more »
Donald Muirhead
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Donald Muirhead
4 months 1 day ago

As a parent at present providing both physical and emotional support to a daughter 7 years into her career I can sympathise with the comments expressed.
It is in my personal opinion that she made a wrong career choice. The present returns she has on approximately 12 years of dedicated studying to achieve a related Honours degree, in comparison with her friends in the NHS, are incomparable.
If the Junior Doctors can make progress on service conditions of employment why not the Vets?

Emily
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Emily
4 months 1 day ago

A brilliantly-written article. I’m sick of working stupid hours with one-in-three on call (Where I invariably get middle-of-the-night colic surgeries) and only doing ” real” vet stuff after hours because all I do in the day are dentals and vaccinations, which bores me senseless. I regret not doing medicine every bloody day.

Nick Bane
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Nick Bane
4 months 22 hours ago

I am also towards the end of my career as a Vet. My own pragmatic solution to what has been repeatedly identified as structural problems in the delivery of first opinion practice services is to have two jobs. One gives me that work-life balance outside the Veterinary sweat shop allowing me to hang on as a Vet without suffering burn-out. I am not alone either. Much service delivery locally is done by part-timers.

Kathy
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Kathy
4 months 8 hours ago

I graduated 6 years ago and am blessed to be working in a positive atmosphere where work life balance is taken seriously, but I am all too aware that this is not the case for so many of my peers. I do have hope that our generation of vets can change things for the better as these issues come to the forefront, but it will require a change in attitudes across the board, from clients as well as employees as highlighted in this article.

Wenda Tonkinson
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Wenda Tonkinson
4 months 16 minutes ago

I would really like to see all people using the NHS being given a breakdown of the costs they would have had to pay if we had no NHS. I think that people may then appreciate the NHS more and have a better understanding of veterinary costs as private healthcare.
I am an RVN that is also a 4th year Vet student and I am certainly fed up of people expecting that I will earn a fortune as a vet and that vets just rip people off, something definitely needs to change.

Catherine Scott
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Catherine Scott
3 months 29 days ago
This is the first article I’ve read that actually spells out the problem with the profession instead of skirting around it with terms like ‘compassion fatigue’ and ‘perfectionism’ etc etc. Those are real issues of course that we all face but ‘undervalued, underpaid and overworked’ absolutely sums it up. I have been qualified 15 years and worked as a first opinion SA vet for most of that time. It can be a lovely job but over time the conditions around it get you down and when I looked at all the options for achieving a better financial situation with a… Read more »
Emma
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Emma
3 months 28 days ago
I emigrated from the UK after 3 years in predominantly small animal practice after working a 1:2 rota for over 2years which led to unrealistic working hours which were not sustainable with life, a relationship or any interests outside the practice. My initial enthusiasm and dedication to the cause (with no overtime pay or time in lieu) wore thin and I went to seek a better balance abroad. My on call requirements are less but I still work a 40hr plus week plus on call commitments and I earn less than I did as a new graduate over 4 years… Read more »
Carolina
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Carolina
3 months 28 days ago
I think the problem in our profession is us, we are type A personality, hyperachivers and perfectionists….. We are workaholics! Plus in UK you see our profession in Herriot’s way, so you don’t see beyond clinical practice. I do agree general practice is boring and tiring, and I got burntout after 7 years. My solution…. By that time I knew what I like and what I didn’t so I went into specialising. Now I only work in what I like and makes me happy. I have many friends doing the same, working as specialist or working for the goverment or… Read more »
Tim
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Tim
3 months 28 days ago
Also at the end of my career I’ve a few observations. Increased regulation has gone alongside ever reducing quality of veterinary professional life. WLB has always been bad but has previously been set against actually enjoying the job. Regulation of one form or another has led that all downwards. Corporates love regulation as does our regulator. Corporates “comply” and know that the regulations will squeeze competition far harder than their own bottom line. If you want to know where corporatisation will lead us….ask an AA man. They are a lot of years ahead of us. If you want to take… Read more »
Cat
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Cat
3 months 6 days ago

We try so hard to have work-life balance as part of our practice ethos. We are trying to ‘think outside the box’ of ways to improve this too. What is so hard is that we still need to pay the wage bill and suppliers etc at the end of the month… And it is a huge amount of money. And there is only so high you can put your prices before your clients just go to the neighbouring practice, having first slagged you off on Facebook. I wish I knew the answer…

Lynda Goetz
Guest
2 months 17 days ago
This article is well-written and highly topical. The author shows a well-developed sense of the state of the profession which he is about to enter. I have long felt that my daughter, who is three-year qualified, is over-worked, under-appreciated and underpaid. The partners who owned the practice recently sold out to a corporate, the directors and shareholders of which clearly intend to maximise their profits at the expense of their hard-working vets and vet nurses. The veterinary profession somehow needs to improve its PR so that clients get some understanding of the extensive expertise and hours put in by those… Read more »
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