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Taking charge of the future

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WHETHER you agree with its conclusions or not, the report of the joint RCVS/BVA Vet Futures project is certainly thought provoking. Over the past year the project has been engaging with vets and veterinary nurses across the UK to identify current challenges and develop a strategy for the veterinary profession for the future (www.vetfutures.org.uk). Its report, which is being launched at the London Vet Show this week, represents the outcome of that process. Called ‘Taking charge of our future’, it sets out a vision for where the veterinary profession should be by 2030 and makes a number of recommendations (34 in total) for how it might get there. The idea is that these will stimulate further engagement and set the course for action in the years ahead.

The vision is encapsulated in six key ambitions, focused around animal health and welfare, the role of the veterinary profession in society, the health and wellbeing of veterinary professionals, veterinary career opportunities, veterinary business models and provision of services, and veterinary leadership. For each of these ambitions, the report specifies what this should mean in terms of where the profession will be and how it is perceived in 15 years' time, as well as making recommendations and discussing the thinking behind them (see pp 503-504 of this issue). One result of this format is that, as well as presenting a vision for the future, it also provides some interesting insights as to where the profession sees itself as being now.

One issue highlighted by research undertaken during the Vet Futures project is a need for better recognition of the wider role that vets play in society, beyond clinical practice – not just in terms of protecting animal health and welfare, but also in areas such as food security, public health, and in helping to meet global and environmental challenges. This is reflected in one of the key ambitions discussed in the report, as well as in recommendations for increased collaboration between veterinary and human health professionals and environmental organisations, in line with the One Health concept. Achieving such recognition may involve changing perceptions within the profession as well as how the profession is perceived by society, and this seems to be reflected in a recommendation that the profession should ‘promote and celebrate the wider roles of veterinary surgeons and veterinary nurses outside clinical practice within the veterinary profession and to the general public’.

Being a leading force for animal health and welfare is seen as a key ambition in itself. Animal health and welfare have always been central to the veterinary profession's activities but the report draws attention to a concern that, if the profession is not seen to be leading this agenda, its role in animal welfare could be diminished. Recommendations here include developing and promoting an animal welfare strategy for the veterinary profession and to ‘enhance moral reasoning and ethical decision-making in education, policymaking, practice-based research and everyday veterinary work’.

A specific ambition relating to diverse and rewarding veterinary careers partly reflects the desire for better recognition of vets' wider role but also ‘a perceived over-emphasis on clinical practice at the expense of other areas, most notably industry, research, academia, and food safety and security’. The suggestion in the report is that ‘veterinary education should be better mapped to the diverse range of careers that vets can pursue’. As well as discussing the broad range of career options, the report also recommends exploring ways of increasing diversity in the profession itself (in relation to ethnicity, socioeconomic background and gender, etc). It further recommends undertaking a workforce study to assess ‘the rewards, recognition and working conditions of vets and veterinary nurses, and the drivers of low and unequal pay’.

As far as practice is concerned, a key ambition is that ‘A range of business models exists in a diverse and thriving marketplace, in an environment that nurtures innovation and choice. That high-quality services are fairly priced and responsive to client needs while always promoting the best interests of animals.’ Matters discussed in this section of the report include changes and consolidation in the market for veterinary services, pricing, and meeting client needs. Recommendations include reviewing the regulatory framework for veterinary businesses to ensure a level playing field, enhancing business and financial skills among veterinary professionals, and exploring whether practice standards inspection should be compulsory.

Regarding health and wellbeing, the ambition is that ‘all members of the veterinary team are confident, resilient, happy, healthy and well supported’, and the report makes a number of recommendations aimed at trying to ensure that this is the case. Discussing leadership, it draws attention to the importance of strong leadership in helping to fulfil all the other ambitions set out in the report; recommendations include ‘exploring options for bringing greater coherence to the support and representation of the veterinary profession’ and exploring ways to develop the next generation of veterinary leaders.

As the report points out, education will play a key role in enabling the profession to shape its future. This is clearly a big subject and, although the report doesn't go into great detail, it draws attention to a need to ‘challenge some of the fundamental principles of veterinary education – including whether the construct of “omnipotential” (ie, the aptitude to treat any and all species) remains relevant and achievable’. A recommendation that the profession ‘explore and consult on a sustainable structure for the veterinary degree, including the viability of limited licensure, allowing veterinary students to focus their studies and specialise during the veterinary degree’ is clearly relevant here and, given the preferences expressed by students in the past, potentially controversial. Veterinary research will also be crucial to future development and, in this respect, a recommendation that the profession should ‘work alongside traditional funders of research and other stakeholders to adopt a more strategic, long-term outlook’ needs to be taken forward. In particular, it would seem important to develop a postdoctoral career structure to encourage more veterinarians to pursue careers in research.

Publication of the report does not represent the end of the Vet Futures project; rather, as Sean Wensley, the BVA President, remarked this week, it is the beginning of the next chapter. The next step will be to set up an action group to drive the recommendations forward. Overall, on reading the report, one is left with the impression of a profession which, if not totally at ease with the situation in which it finds itself, is nevertheless determined to do something about it.

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