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Problems with retention?

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A STUDY on retaining vets in farm animal practice would always be of interest, but one summarised in this week's Veterinary Record seems particularly pertinent at a time when the structure of farm animal practice in the UK is changing rapidly. On p 655 of this print issue, Katherine Adam and colleagues summarise the results of a study on the retention of farm animal vets in UK practices, which has recently been published in full in the online version of the journal (Adam and others 2015). Their findings are likely to be of interest to anyone working or thinking of working in farm animal practice, whether as employers or employees, as well as anyone concerned about the future supply and possible shortages of farm animal vets and about the future of farm animal practice in the UK.

Concern about a potential shortage of farm animal vets is not new; nor, given the significance of their role in areas such as disease surveillance, safe food production and safeguarding animal health and welfare, is it confined to the UK. In 2009 in the UK, in a report called ‘Unlocking potential: a report on veterinary expertise in food animal production’, Philip Lowe, of Newcastle University, examined the issue specifically, in the light of concerns that had been raised by the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee that there might not be enough vets to fulfil the aims of the UK's Animal Health and Welfare Strategy. Contrary to expectations, Professor Lowe's report concluded that there was no absolute shortage of vets who might be available for large animal work; rather, it suggested, the veterinary profession needed to re-engage with food and farming, and pay more heed to the needs of its farming customers (VR, August 15, 2009, vol 165, pp 185, 186-188). In 2012, the Veterinary Development Council, under the chairmanship of Richard Bennett, of the University of Reading, made a number of recommendations aimed at addressing some of the issues Professor Lowe had identified (VR, May 12, 2012, vol 170, pp 478, 479-480).

The paper by Adam and others would seem to support Professor Lowe's observation that there is no absolute shortage of vets who might be available for farm animal work: it notes that there is no apparent lack of new veterinary graduates willing to work with farm animals and suggests instead that the main issue relating to the supply of farm animal vets is not in getting them interested in farm animal practice, but in keeping them there. Examining this issue further by comparing the experiences of vets who had stopped working in veterinary practice with those who continued to do so, their study, based on an online survey undertaken in 2013, sought to identify factors associated with vets remaining in farm animal practice in the UK.

A total of 479 responses were received to the survey, of which 380 were included in the analysis – 231 from vets working with farm animals, and 149 from vets who had given up farm work. The median age of respondents was 37, and the gender balance was 44 per cent male and 52 per cent female (4 per cent did not state their gender). The median length of time that respondents had worked in farm practice was eight years: for those still working in farm practice the median was nine years, while for those who had left it was six. The most common career move was into small animal practice, with 80 per cent of those who had left farm practice now working with small animals. Fewer than 4 per cent of respondents reported that they intended to change their decision either to leave or remain in farm practice.

One of the more surprising findings of the study was that working in a practice where accommodation was provided was associated with a significantly lower odds of remaining in farm animal practice; this, the authors suggest, might be because working on site might have a negative effect on employees' quality of life and work-life balance, or because vets living in practice-owned accommodation are able to change jobs and move around more easily, as they are not tied down by private rental agreements or home ownership. An increasing number of years since graduation was also associated with lower odds of remaining in farm practice; this, the authors point out, will mainly reflect the cumulative proportion of farm vets leaving farm work as their careers progress, although they suggest it might also be due to practitioners finding the physical demands of farm work increasingly challenging as they grow older.

Conversely, factors found to be associated with higher odds of remaining in farm work included working in a practice where staff appraisals were carried out; coming from a family with a commercial farm; spending more time on farm work; and being on call with an experienced vet in the first job after graduation. The authors draw attention to the importance of support for new graduates during the transition from university to practice and suggest that interventions to improve retention should focus on this and staff management. They further suggest that employers might benefit from more training in this area.

Notably, given the ongoing debate about the increasing ‘feminisation’ of the veterinary profession, the study found that gender was not significantly associated with retention, and that women who enter farm animal practice are as likely to remain in this area as their male colleagues.

Adam and others' findings need to be seen in the context of the changes currently taking place in farm animal practice. Some of these were discussed in the article ‘Cattle veterinary services in a changing world’, by Jonathan Statham and Martin Green (VR, March 14, 2015, vol 176, pp 276-280), as part of Veterinary Record's series discussing the current state of various sectors of the veterinary profession, and they are also discussed in an article on the role of vets in sheep farming, by Fiona Lovatt, on p 644 of this issue. Their findings also need to be considered in light of changes in the Government's approach to the provision of official veterinary services, including TB testing, which will lead to further changes in farm animal practice and could affect the number and types of job available in the years ahead. They should certainly be fed into the joint RCVS/BVA Vet Futures project (vetfutures.org.uk), which is currently looking at some of the issues facing the profession, with a view to developing an appropriate strategy for the future.

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