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.
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.
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.
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?
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.