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2020 vision

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IT IS hard enough to predict what might be happening in 15 months’ time, let alone 15 years. Nevertheless, this is what the RCVS set out to do in a symposium in London last week. At a one-day meeting entitled ‘Postcards from the future’, speakers sought to paint a picture of what veterinary life in Britain might look like in 2020. The aim, as the RCVS President, Mrs Lynne Hill, explained at the start of the proceedings, was to develop a clearer vision of where the profession was heading. The veterinary profession, like other professions, was currently in a state of flux but, by anticipating developments, members would be in a position to shape their own future, rather than having the future shaped for them.

Those contributing to the symposium were drawn from a wide range of disciplines, and included veterinarians working in farm and companion animal practice, government service, teaching and research. Further perspectives were provided by speakers with backgrounds in business, pharmacy, dentistry, veterinary nursing and farming.

A clear picture emerged of practice becoming more specialised, with greater differentiation between farm and companion animal practices. Although a quarter of respondents to the recent RCVS employment survey (VR, April 29, 2006, vol 158, p 573) described themselves as working in mixed practice, the message from the symposium was that, by 2020, the individual mixed practitioner could be a thing of the past. This, coupled with practice economics and changing aspirations among veterinary surgeons, would make it difficult to provide veterinary cover in remote rural areas. Provision of veterinary services is already proving difficult in some areas of Britain, and there was a consensus at the meeting that this issue needs to be addressed.

Much was made of market forces and consumer choice in determining the future direction of practice, particularly companion animal practice, with one speaker suggesting that veterinary surgeons should think less in terms of clients and more in terms of consumers, as it was consumers who would shape the profession of the future. Comparison was made with the way services provided by opticians had changed in recent years and it was suggested that, by 2020, the market for companion animal veterinary services would be dominated by two or three corporate groups, which would between them account for more than 50 per cent of the market. People visiting these practices, which might well be open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, would be offered a wide range of services in well-equipped premises by teams that would include not just veterinary surgeons and veterinary nurses, but business managers, technicians, consumer relationship managers and other professionals.

Comparison was also made with the dental profession, where a shift in the balance between public and private funding, and moves towards consumer-driven services, has stimulated ethical debate about the level of services available to those who can afford expensive treatments and those who cannot. The symposium did not deal with this issue in the context of companion animals, although the question was raised as to whether everyone would be able to afford or be willing to pay for the services envisaged for their pets.

The future of farm animal practice was also seen as being demand led, with the result being fewer, more specialised practices covering larger areas of the country. Consultancy services would be expanded, but there would be fewer farm visits and less individual treatment of animals, both on a routine basis and also in emergencies. This had implications for disease surveillance and animal welfare, and the point was well made at the symposium that simply relying on market forces to sort things out might not produce the future that was desired.

Technology will undoubtedly have moved on by 2020, and a number of speakers referred to changes that will result as both veterinary surgeons and consumers make greater use of the internet and new digital telecommunications systems. Attention was drawn, too, to the likely impact of new technologies for the detection, identification and monitoring of disease – so called ‘DIM systems’ – as discussed in the recent Foresight report on infectious diseases (VR, May 6, 2006, vol 158, p 605).

The demographic composition of the veterinary profession can also be expected to have changed by 2020, although speakers seemed divided on whether the current trend towards female domination of the profession will continue or a more equal gender balance will be achieved. The overall number of veterinary graduates can be expected to increase as the veterinary schools take in more students. However, student debt was identified as an important issue for the profession, and concern was expressed about its likely impact on future career choices.

Speakers also considered veterinary activity in areas such as food safety, government service and research. In doing so, they emphasised the value of a veterinary degree as a broad-based qualification in science. In the future, more of those with a veterinary qualification might choose to use their expertise in areas other than those traditionally associated with the profession, and this, it was suggested, might be no bad thing.

The RCVS symposium covered a great deal of ground and, while it provided a vision of the future, it also raised many questions. Some of the issues identified will be considered in detail at this year’s BVA Congress, to be held in London on September 29 and 30, where the emphasis will be on finding answers and making the most of the changes now taking place.

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