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So what are you up to?

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THE annual BSAVA congress always provides a chance to catch up with what individual veterinary surgeons are doing. This year’s meeting (see pp 575-580 of this issue) also provided an opportunity to find out how the profession as a whole is occupied. At various stages over the past eight years, the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS) has undertaken a survey of the profession to assess employment trends and working patterns. Preliminary findings from the latest survey, the fourth in the series, were presented at the congress and provide some useful insights into current trends.

The survey was based on a questionnaire sent to all members of the College in January. A total of 9671 replies were received, representing a response rate of 47·2 per cent. This is significantly higher than the 29 per cent who responded the last time the survey was conducted, in 2002. The changing gender balance within the profession was again reflected in the findings; 45 per cent of the respondents were female, compared with 37 per cent in 2002 and 34 per cent in 2000. Those anxious to increase ethnic diversity in the profession will gain little comfort from the fact that 98 per cent of the respondents were white.

A higher proportion of those responding to this year’s survey were working in practice – 91 per cent, compared with 82 per cent in 2002 and 79 per cent in 2000. Although the results have still to be fully analysed, and direct comparison is difficult because of changes in the survey questionnaire, the breakdown in terms of the type of work undertaken appears to be similar to that in 2002, with the majority (78 per cent) indicating that they worked in small animal, referral, or mixed practice (46 per cent, 6 per cent and 26 per cent, respectively). Six per cent said they worked in equine practice and 4 per cent in farm practice. Among the remainder, 10 per cent worked for the Government (compared with 13 per cent in 2002 and 14 per cent in 2000), 7 per cent for universities (compared with 8 per cent in 2002 and 3 per cent in 2000), 4 per cent in industry, and 2 per cent for charities and trusts. Asked how the time spent on different elements of the work compared with what they did in 2001 and what they anticipated doing in 2011, respondents indicated that work involving cats, rabbits, horses and practice management/administration was increasing; work involving dogs, cattle, sheep and poultry was decreasing, along with meat hygiene and LVI (local veterinary inspector) work; and work involving birds, exotic species, pigs and fish seemed relatively static.

A striking finding is that respondents seem to be working shorter hours than previously, suggesting that the aim of achieving a better ‘work-life’ balance may be starting to be achieved. The results indicate that veterinary surgeons in full-time employment in general/first-opinion practice were working an average of 42·8 hours each week, compared with 51·6 hours in 2002. Interestingly, the longest hours were being clocked up by those working in veterinary schools, for whom the average was 45·7 hours per week. Time spent on-call has also fallen; the average in general/first-opinion practice in this year’s survey was 21·6 hours per week compared with 27·3 hours per week in 2002. Equine practitioners spent the most time on-call, averaging 29·3 hours per week.

The reduction in time spent on-call may partly be the result of increased use of out-of-hours services and of practices sharing cover: although 63 per cent of practices handled emergency on-call themselves, 11 per cent shared with another practice and 22 per cent used an out-of-hours service.

Sixty-eight per cent of those responding to the questionnaire were working full time, 14 per cent part time and 12 per cent were fully retired. The number working part time had increased slightly since 2002, when the proportion was 12 per cent. Seventy per cent of the male respondents were working full time, and 64 per cent of the female respondents. Five per cent of the men were in part-time work and 25 per cent of the women.

The survey also sought to gauge members’ opinions on issues such as whether veterinary work was interesting, whether it was stressful and whether, in terms of employment, the profession could be considered ‘family friendly’. The RCVS reports that women tended to be ‘more negative than men’ on issues relating to family friendliness and part-time opportunities, and that they were also more likely to agree that veterinary work was stressful. Both sexes seemed to consider veterinary work stressful, but, on the plus side, respondents seemed to agree that the profession offers variety and that veterinary work is interesting.

Such surveys are always of interest. However, it is their nature to raise as many questions as answers, and doubtless more questions will arise as the preliminary findings are analysed and the survey report is completed. It will be particularly interesting to see how much light the results shed on future employment opportunities, given the changing demographics in the profession, concerns about a shortage of veterinary surgeons available for farm work, and changing demands for veterinary services.

The future shape of the profession is important to both the profession itself and the society it serves, and will be a key theme for this year’s BVA Congress, to be held in London from September 29 to 30. Entitled ‘Vets, animal health and the human factor: veterinary medicine in 2015’, the congress will explore changes in the composition of the profession and the demands being made on it, and the implications for animal health and welfare. It will specifically examine the nature of these changes and the opportunities they present.

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