David Babington is managing director of Improve International. Here, he describes how he made CPD his business
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THE year is 1981 and I'm in the main hall at the Royal Veterinary College in Camden Town. The principal, Alan Betts, is welcoming the new intake of students to begin their undergraduate training. I am one of 70, a roughly equal mix of males and females. My ambition is to become a large animal vet.
Fast forward 32 years and I am still a vet, but I'm sitting in a small animal referral hospital just outside Copenhagen, Denmark, visiting our partners who are running modular programmes in small animal medicine and surgery. I am the managing director of a Europe-wide veterinary training company. How did that happen?
I knew from an early age that I wanted to be a vet. The success of the James Herriot books and TV programmes in the 1970s no doubt helped to fuel the desire and I really enjoyed being out in the countryside and visiting farms.
I qualified in 1986 and then worked as an assistant vet in a mixed animal hospital in Alton, Hampshire. Finally, I was a real vet with a crisp, clean brown coat and a Mini Traveller as a practice car. I remember an early visit to see a sick horse and being greeted by the owner with the nervous question: ‘Are you the vet?’. I did manage to say ‘yes’, but only just!
After a couple of years I moved back to London and joined a progressive entirely small animal practice in Pinner. I had become a little disillusioned with farm animal practice in that the economics of the clinical situation often dictated the final course of action. Alison, my girlfriend and now wife, was also a vet and we wanted to work closer to each other.
I enjoyed two years as an assistant in London and developed an interest in small animal orthopaedics. I enrolled for the then RCVS certificate in small animal orthopaedics and started to look for more focused CPD opportunities. I attended some good training sessions, some of which involved hands-on practical instruction, but felt there was a lack of structured training to help me study for the examination. In 1990, Alison and I were offered the chance to purchase a small animal branch practice in my home town of Swindon. The next eight years were a whirlwind of practice development – we set up two new practices from scratch – as well as starting a family.
In 1994 one of our practices suffered a major fire, which caused me to rethink our future. I was concerned about the potential vulnerability of the business and how dependent its success was on Alison or me. I decided to research other business opportunities.
Interactive Modules for Progressive Veterinary Education (IMProVE) was established in May 1998 by three likeminded vets who had qualified with me from the RVC. By this time I was running three small animal practices and had started a veterinary magazine called ‘Veterinary Scope’. When my friends invited me to get involved, I jumped at the opportunity. I started off as marketing director, helping to develop the company while continuing to practise. Evening classes helped me get to grips with marketing.
We expanded the portfolio, adding a series of short one- and two-day courses while increasing the number of more in-depth modular programmes. We started to run small group, practical courses and found these were very popular. The wet-lab environment filled a much-needed gap and provided important training in key clinical areas such as diagnostic imaging, dentistry, soft-tissue and orthopaedic surgery. Some of the early practical courses were held at a nearby university medical school. This proved interesting as we had to take delegates through the human dissection rooms to access the lecture facilities. We had to remember to warn them! In 2002 we moved to our own training centre in Cricklade, north of Swindon, where we had our own wet-labs and lecture facilities, together with office space.
In 2003, we linked up with the European School of Veterinary Postgraduate Studies (ESVPS), a move that enabled us to help vets in practice to study for an achievable postgraduate qualification, the GPCert. We then started to look overseas and, in 2006, ran our first modular courses outside the UK. In partnership with a veterinary wholesaler in Norway and a CPD company in Italy we ran two successful programmes in small animal practice. I was contacted by a Portuguese veterinarian and this led to the establishment of our office in Portugal and subsequently other subsidiaries in Spain, France and Germany. Improve International was born.
Today, we are based at a state-of-the-art conference and training centre, Alexandra House, in Wroughton near Swindon. We run more than 50 modular programmes across 13 European countries. Thanks to the recent partnership between Improve, ESVPS and Harper Adams University, vets and nurses can now gain a university qualification by completing a modular training programme and passing the examination. Vets can gain a postgraduate certificate and then build on this over time to achieve a postgraduate diploma and, finally, a masters degree in advanced veterinary practice sciences. More than 1500 vets have now achieved a general practitioner certificate from ESVPS, gaining new knowledge and skills to apply in practice, and this year we will launch programmes in Holland, Switzerland, Australia and New Zealand.
For me, the change in career direction has proved very satisfying. I am still passionate about being a vet, but am using my skills in a different way to help the profession as a whole develop in new ways. After all, the UK profession is in transition. With new vet schools on the horizon, corporate practice expansion and an increasing number of foreign vets looking for jobs here, the competitive environment for both new and experienced vets is much tougher. I believe that studying for a postgraduate qualification will soon become the norm and that the majority of vets will need to develop special interests within their particular species focus.
The good news is that there is much more choice available when it comes to CPD and it can be delivered in a flexible way with minimal time away from practice.
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