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THE veterinary profession has a long history of adapting to change, but how well is it adapting at the moment and should it be doing more to shape its own future? These are some of the questions being addressed by Vet Futures, a project being led by the RCVS and the BVA which, at a time when the veterinary profession and what is expected of it seem to be changing particularly rapidly, aims to identify challenges currently facing the profession and, more importantly, what should be done about them (VR, November 29, 2014, vol 175, p 518). Reports on the outcome of the first tranche of research being undertaken as part of the project – in the form of a literature review as well as qualitative research involving focus groups and interviews – have just been posted on the Vet Futures website (www.vetfutures.org.uk) and the results make interesting reading.
The qualitative research, which, Vet Futures says, was designed ‘to get the conversation started’, was based on interviews involving veterinary surgeons, veterinary nurses, pet owners and various other stakeholders, which were held towards the end of last year.1 Although the sample size was relatively small, the findings seem to ring true, chiming, for example, with some of the comments made during a debate on the state of the profession at the BVA Congress at the London Vet Show last November (VR, January 3, 2015, vol 176, pp 6-7) and during a similar debate at the SPVS/VPMA congress in Newport in January.
Key themes identified in the report include concerns about: the changing status of the profession, with a perception that esteem for the profession is falling; changes in the profile and aspirations of those entering the profession; and changes in the marketplace for veterinary services and the ways and structures in which vets work. Others include concerns about pay and pricing, with many of those taking part in the research being worried that vets are not earning enough, while also being aware that the public feel that they are charged too much for veterinary services. They also expressed concerns about the recruitment and training of tomorrow's vets. Stress and a sense of isolation among veterinary surgeons were identified as themes by the research, as was a need for strong leadership. A recurring message, says the report, was that it is important to consider the whole profession when thinking about the future, not just clinical practice.
In drawing attention to such concerns, the report also identifies opportunities that exist in each of these areas. It notes that, while the vets taking part in the research tended to be more pessimistic about the future than the other participants involved, some vets were more optimistic than others. One of the more encouraging findings of the research was that, of the pet owners involved in the focus groups, most were positive about their experiences of vets and most were loyal to their regular vet. Pet owners, the report says, tended to place a great deal of trust in vets, valuing them more highly than other professionals and putting them ‘on a par, or even above, doctors in terms of the trust placed in them’.
The literature review offers some interesting perspectives on current challenges, based on a review of articles published in the past three years.2 It highlights a number of ‘drivers of change that are shaping the landscape for the veterinary profession’, identifying these as: demographic changes, economic forces, an increasingly competitive market, client behaviour, food supply and global imperatives, and mental wellbeing. Referring to experiences in the USA as well as in the UK, and also in other professions, it discusses each of these drivers in turn and, in doing so, points to possible solutions to some of the concerns being raised. For example, discussing client behaviour, it suggests that ‘It can be inferred from the literature that one of the fundamental drivers underpinning veterinary services may need to change – from a model driven by what vets are prepared to offer, to one that is driven by the needs and wants of existing and potential clients.’ Discussing ‘food supply and global imperatives’ it suggests that being seen to take an active role in this area could, among other things, enable the profession to reinforce its role in society, and help maintain its professional standing.
Issues relating to veterinary education are not covered by the review, on the grounds that these have received specific attention in the past and that there is a need to establish the big strategic issues first. This is in some ways a pity because, although the report acknowledges that education will be ‘pivotal to the response to the drivers of change’, it potentially underplays the role of education, along with research, in helping to set new directions and drive things forward. The review also notes that ‘education is reactive to the needs of the profession, as laid down by directive and accreditation standards that are set and administered by the profession’. As for other professions, veterinary education clearly needs to meet practical requirements; however, it also has to do much more than that and there is a need to strike the right balance here or the system could become overly self-limiting in terms of future development. It will be important not to underestimate the significance of education in preparing graduates for a future that will inevitably be different from what we have now.