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So what's happening out there?

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MUCH seems to have changed in the veterinary profession over the past few years, but to what extent does the reality match that perception? Two surveys currently being undertaken by the RCVS - one among veterinary surgeons, the other among veterinary nurses - should provide a chance to find out.

It is four years since the RCVS last conducted a detailed survey of employment trends and future aspirations among veterinary surgeons, and two years since it initiated a similar survey among veterinary nurses. In repeating the exercise, it has decided to conduct both surveys concurrently, to obtain a fuller snapshot of what is happening. It is also including some additional questions, intended to assess mental wellbeing across the profession as a whole.

A surprising finding of the last survey among veterinary surgeons was that, despite anecdotal evidence to the contrary, the dynamics of the profession had remained relatively stable, with, for example, the impact of the increasing proportion of women veterinary surgeons appearing to be less marked than anticipated. In 2006 the number of vets working part time had risen by only 2 per cent since the previous survey in 2002. Meanwhile, it turned out that nearly 25 per cent of sole principals, partners or directors of practices were female which, the RCVS President pointed out at the time, 'put paid' to the suggestion that women were unwilling to invest in practice.

Another finding in 2006 was that respondents seemed to be working shorter hours than previously, and also spending less time on call, suggesting that the oft-stated goal of achieving a better work-life balance in the profession might be starting to be achieved.

It will be interesting to see whether these trends are reflected in the results of this year's survey, given, for example, that the proportion of women veterinary surgeons has continued to rise and that increased use of out-of-hours clinics may have reduced the time some vets have to spend on call. On the other hand, out-of-hours clinics will have done nothing to reduce the burden on farm animal practitioners and the economic recession will almost inevitably be having an impact on the way most vets are working. Whatever the findings, the results should help in decisions on policy, such as on how to reconcile the profession's desire to provide 24/7 emergency cover with the particular requirements of the working time regulations.

Equally interesting, and just as important, will be the information gathered on the types of work in which vets are engaged. In 2006, a higher proportion of respondents indicated they were working in practice than was the case in previous surveys (91 per cent in 2006, compared with 82 per cent in 2002 and 79 per cent in 2000), 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, 7 per cent for universities, 4 per cent in industry, and 2 per cent for charities and trusts. This year's survey may again throw up some surprises but, with consolidation and specialisation having continued in practice, this distribution might be expected to have changed. Meanwhile, as debate on the availability of veterinary expertise continues, particularly in research and in the farm sector, the results should shed light on how effectively veterinary skills are being deployed.

A key finding of the 2008 survey of veterinary nurses was that they shared a high degree of job satisfaction but felt underappreciated in terms of income and the extent to which their skills were used (see VR, August 9, 2008, vol 163, p 166). Two years is perhaps too short a time to expect this to have changed much, but the situation needs to be improved.

As well as seeking career and demographic information, the survey questionnaire for vets includes questions on issues such as whether the veterinary schools are recruiting too many students, whether new graduates have the necessary skills for work in practice as soon as they graduate, and whether farm animal work will continue to decline. Previous employment surveys have achieved a high response rate and it is to be hoped that this will again be the case. Opinions abound on what is happening in the profession. Self-selecting surveys have their limitations but, provided that enough people take part, can help distinguish anecdote from fact.

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