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Learning doesn't stop at university
  1. Stephen May

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One of the key elements of a profession that distinguishes it from other ways of earning a living is the obligation on its members to keep themselves up to date in relation to their chosen area of practice. Stephen May, of the Royal Veterinary College, explains why learning doesn't stop at university

OUR ‘social contract’ privileges us with the exclusive right to carry out acts of veterinary surgery, but, in exchange, we agree to provide a science-based clinical service focused on the interests of the animals that we treat and their owners and keepers.

From our first days as veterinary students, we realise that mastery of the range of knowledge and skills required is a formidable challenge. This has been made more so, in the latter decades of the 20th century and the early 21st century, as a result of the acceleration of progress in knowledge and the availability of advanced technologies for the diagnosis and treatment of the animals committed to our care. It was never realistic to expect notes taken at university to remain current for more than the briefest of moments in our professional careers. However, students now have to recognise that the information delivered in the early years of their programme may be outdated by the time they reach their clinical years!

It has been a long time in the UK since medical practitioners have been able to ‘put up their plate’ immediately after obtaining their first clinical qualification. The recognition that a specific career track and postgraduate training was required emerged in the 1950s and 1960s, and this has led to the current five-year programme (in place since 2005), composed of two years as a ‘foundation doctor’, followed by three years as a general medicine specialty registrar. Similar discussions continue to take place in relation to new veterinary graduates.

Learning after graduation

Both a recognition of its responsibilities and societal expectations have meant that the RCVS and the profession as a whole have recognised the need to be more explicit about professional development and more structured in the support available to recent graduates. The RCVS Code of Professional Conduct for veterinary surgeons states that ‘veterinary surgeons must maintain and develop the knowledge and skills relevant to their professional practice and competence, and comply with RCVS requirements on the Professional Development Phase (PDP) and continuing professional development (CPD).’ Currently, this means that all professionally active members of the College must complete a minimum of 105 hours of CPD over each three-year period.

For new graduates, the PDP has been mandatory since 2008. This requires the recording of a range of procedures that they have undertaken during their first year in practice and their eventual self-assessment that they have achieved ‘Year 1 level’ competence in those relevant to their daily work. During this period, recent graduates are encouraged to discuss their progress with senior colleagues, and they can also consult one of the RCVS's four postgraduate deans. It will take around a year for graduates to be confident that they are capable Year 1 practitioners, at which stage they will sign themselves off as having completed the PDP (and also have their record countersigned by a senior colleague familiar with their work). Their record will then be reviewed by a postgraduate dean and certified as complete.

In the early 1960s, the RCVS started to create its family of specialist diplomas. The number of these progressively grew over subsequent decades, and they are now being replaced by European diplomas where equivalent qualifications exist. In the 1980s, it was recognised that an intermediate qualification, a certificate, would be helpful for many in practice, to create a target to work towards and also demonstrate a particular interest in their chosen area of practice. The original certificates were relatively inflexible when it came to lifelong learning and the different career trajectories pursued by the modern graduate, so this led, in 2007, to the creation of the RCVS modular certificate in advanced veterinary practice. This is truly a qualification for general practice. It incorporates professional key skills elements with optional business and clinical modules, allowing individuals to tailor the qualification to their practice needs and organise their study and assessment of achievement in relation to their personal needs.

The RCVS has been keen that the new certificate should be benchmarked to UK Masters degree standards and that its modules should be credit rated so that they could be incorporated into full Masters programmes and even professional doctorates, such as a DProf or a future VetD (analogous to the EngD and EdD available for other disciplines). This means that, for those who find it helpful, there will increasingly be more structured trajectories of learning, building on the PDP, that can be incorporated into a daily routine, in order to enhance professional experiential learning and the development of expertise (see Fig 1).

Fig 1

Evolving trajectories of learning Candidates may proceed directly to higher qualifications depending on opportunities and personal circumstances

Perhaps because of the evolutionary nature of all these changes, aimed at meeting our clients' needs in a format that is attractive and relevant to the individual practitioner, whatever their role, the profession was recently stung by the criticism that its system of postgraduate qualifications and way of recognising specialists was confusing to the public (and probably also to some within the profession)! This led to the recent RCVS consultation on specialisation in the veterinary profession and subsequent recommendations to the RCVS Council about the simplification of postnominal designations and the creation of an RCVS advanced practitioner register alongside the specialist register that already exists. How we implement all this, and avoid further confusion, is currently a work in progress.

For those interested in the social contract and professionalism and concepts of CPD, the further reading and links listed below provide food for thought. The RCVS website has useful information on the PDP and CertAVP, and accredited universities also provide helpful advice on their websites. There are styles of study and modes of assessment available that should suit all, and modules from different providers can be combined to produce an individually customised certificate. In addition, there is an opportunity to discuss these matters further at the London Vet Show.

Further reading

FRIEDMAN, A. & PHILLIPS, M. (2004) Continuing professional development: developing a vision. Journal of Education and Work 17, 361-376

MAY, S. A. (2012) Veterinary Ethics, Professionalism and Society. Chapter 4 in Veterinary and Animal Ethics. Eds C. Wathes, S. May, S. Corr, M. Whiting and S. McCulloch. UFAW Animal Welfare Series, Wiley-Blackwell, Oxford. For publication November 2012

THISTLETHWAITE, J. & SPENCER, J. (2008) Professionalism in Medicine. Radcliffe Publishing, Oxford

RCVS Code of Professional Conduct



Certificate in Advanced Veterinary Practice – university links

Middlesex University

Royal Veterinary College

University of Bristol

University of Cambridge

University of Edinburgh

University of Glasgow

University of Liverpool

University of the West of England

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