08 /08/17

Challenges faced by the veterinary profession - Interview with Dr Chris Tufnell

Falling numbers of veterinary surgeons, disruptive technology and high levels of professional stress are just some of the issues facing the veterinary profession. Read this exclusive interview with Chris Tufnell, the outgoing President of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, to see how the College is responding to these challenges.

long with many other sectors of the UK economy, the veterinary profession is weighing up the consequences of the UK’s exit from the EU. Brexit is likely to hit the profession particularly hard with around one-third of practising vets in the UK having qualified from elsewhere in Europe.

We rely on vets from the likes of Spain, Italy and Poland to fill valuable roles in clinical practice as well as in the Food Standards Agency, the Animal and Plant Health Agency and in higher education. Without them, veterinary surgeries may struggle to meet demand for round-the-clock care, food hygiene could be compromised and vet schools may find it difficult to fill existing and new teaching roles.

Over and above the raw data, a recent survey by the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS), which regulates the veterinary and veterinary nursing professions in the UK and sets, upholds and advances veterinary standards, found non-UK EU vets feel undervalued and are experiencing growing levels of uncertainty about their future in this country. “The saddening thing is that 64% of non-UK EU vets have felt less welcome since Brexit, 44% are fearful of the future and 40% feel that they have reduced job security. As a result of these factors, there is a general feeling amongst them that they are likely to move abroad, with 40% stating that they are more likely to leave the UK than they had been before the vote,” comments Chris.

How to fill the demand for veterinary surgeons once the UK leaves the EU has been one of the main issues pursued by Chris as part of the College’s Brexit taskforce. In its role as a regulator acting on behalf of public interest, it is concerned about the impact on animals and has therefore has been looking at a range of initiatives for the short and medium to long term.   “What concerns us about Brexit is the potential impact on animal welfare. Too few vets could mean that animals suffer with conditions which ought to have received veterinary attention.”

What concerns us about Brexit is the potential impact on animal welfare. Too few vets could mean that animals suffer with conditions which ought to have received veterinary attention.

The College is liaising with the government to “persuade them to allow vets to continue coming into the UK to practise and to stay post graduation in the transition period, as the solution to it cannot be achieved in the short term.”

Filling gaps in the market with overseas vets would not be so critical if the profession was able to recruit and retain more home-grown professionals. Factors such as low levels of morale, lack of career progression, high public expectations and long, inflexible working conditions are all contributing to “50% of UK qualified veterinary surgeons being disillusioned with the profession five years post graduation. To remedy this situation, we are looking at a variety of models and technological innovations to help improve professional satisfaction, lower cost of delivery and increase levels of retention” comments Chris.

A possible remedy which could help with veterinary provision is the wider adoption of technology to deliver the service. Whilst the profession uses advanced forms of technology in diagnosis, it has yet to fully embrace telemedicine, in which advice is provided by some form of electronic communication such as a video-link, text, instant messaging or telephone.

Initiatives such as these could transform the work/life balance for vets, particularly those operating in traditional, single-handed practices. Technology could provide them with the ability to deliver healthcare to remote locations outside of normal working hours, possibly at a lower cost.

Under its current regulatory regime, the College’s assumption is that interactions between vets, clients and animals will be face-to-face, but increasingly these interactions are happening remotely via telemedicine platforms. This is why earlier this year, the College conducted a consultation exercise on telemedicine to help it identify potential risks and benefits from the viewpoint of both clinicians and the public.  “Whilst the results of the survey are still being evaluated, about 50% of respondents commented that they are in favour of telemedicine, although 50% were nervous and against it. One of the broader outcomes of the study is to enable the College to formulate new professional standards and guidance on this emerging area of practice.”

One of the unfortunate outcomes of a vet’s lifestyle is that the pressures of out of hours working, that ‘always on’ feeling and growing expectations from the general public, can become overwhelming. This can lead to feelings of despair and in some extreme cases, suicide. Indeed, mental health is now a major concern for the profession, with the rate of suicide three to four times higher than in the general population as a whole (Platt et al, Vetlife).

Chris feels that high levels of suicide within the profession could partly reflect the practise of ‘putting animals to sleep’ as part of the working life of a vet. “Unlike in human medicine, euthanasia is an option that we turn to on an almost daily basis to alleviate suffering in animals. So seeing that as a solution does possibly change our attitude to death. Additionally, we have access to be able to do it in a pain free manner.”   

To address this problem, around three years ago, the Royal College committed to spending £1mn over five years to support the Mind Matters Initiative (MMI), aimed at increasing the awareness of mental health issues in the profession. In January of this year, a collaboration was created with a similar organisation in the medical profession (Doctors’ Support Network) to form ‘&me’.

‘&me’ encourages senior people within the healthcare professions to talk openly about their experience dealing with mental health problems and how it need not exclude them from achieving leading roles in their career. Social media is used to publicise stories and encourage people to get more involved using the hashtag #AndMe.

“Although there’s still more to be done, the stigma of mental health within the profession is reducing with veterinary teams being taught how to recognise and deal with depression, stress and anxiety. Furthermore, the adoption of new technology could alleviate some of the distress felt by vets enabling them to deliver a better service adapted to their lifestyle.”

Although there’s still more to be done, the stigma of mental health within the profession is reducing.

Reaching across borders, Chris is passionate about improving the understanding of the connectivity between animals, humans and the environment across the world. Operating under the umbrella concept of One Health, he has been actively promoting the benefits of more joined up thinking between medical, veterinary and environmental sciences to formulate common solutions to issues such as preventing transmissible diseases, countering anti-microbial resistance in humans and animals, promoting the human benefits of owning a pet and reducing air pollution for the benefit of animals and humans. “During my presidency, I would have liked to have persuaded every veterinary professional that they have a role to play in One Health.”

Despite his year as President coming to an end, Chris will remain active in the pursuit of these initiatives in his role as Vice President at the College, where he will continue to push for a well resourced veterinary profession which enhances the lives of both the people who work within it and the animals that they care for.

Chris is a Board Advisor for CatDogFish and is a valuable contributor to our editorial content. Many of the issues raised by him in this interview will be further explored in future articles.  @Terrytuf1

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