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Don't forget the human factor

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‘VETS, animal health and the human factor’ was the title of this year's bva Congress and, while various political and technical issues were raised during the meeting, which took place in London last week, it was the importance of the human factor that really shone through. This was to be expected in discussions on the demographic changes that have occurred in the veterinary profession in recent years; however, it also emerged as an issue in other debates — most notably, perhaps, in discussion of contingency planning for exotic disease outbreaks, which highlighted the need for practitioners to be fully involved in those plans, and for proper communication among everyone concerned.

Regarding demographic changes, the scene was set in the plenary Wooldridge Memorial Lecture, given by Dame Carol Black, president of the Royal College of Physicians, who considered the changing gender balance in the medical and veterinary professions, and how this might affect the way the professions developed in the future. In both professions, the proportion of women was rising, to the point that women outnumbered men. Women, Dame Carol argued, were different from men, with different career aspirations and ambitions, and, as a result, the ‘feminisation’ of the professions had implications for the way services would have to be managed and organised. In a thought-provoking and at times controversial address, she considered some of the factors that might prevent women reaching the higher echelons of certain specialties. As the proportion of women in the professions continued to rise, she also considered what, if anything, might be done to encourage more male entrants. Some people felt it was politically incorrect to look at gender differences in the workplace in this way but, she argued, the issue could not be ignored: it was important to be aware of what was happening, and to plan accordingly.

The importance of people in making things happen was underlined in the session on contingency plans. defra has devoted a great deal of effort to this area in recent years and there is no doubt that, at the level of planning, things have improved. At the same time, it was clear from the debate that practitioners felt insufficiently involved in this process, and inadequately informed about what might be expected of them in the event of a serious disease outbreak. In part this might come down to problems in communication (and communication, it was pointed out, is a two-way process), but it was also clear that other factors were involved. A comment from the floor that delays and lack of progress in negotiations on lvi (local veterinary inspector) contracts had caused frustration among practitioners, and contributed to a sense that their services were undervalued, certainly seemed to strike a chord among those present at the meeting, and this issue needs to be resolved. Systems and processes are obviously important in contingency planning, but success ultimately depends on the people involved.

People can also have an impact on government policy, and this, too, was demonstrated at the congress. It is barely three months since the Secretary of State at defra, Mr David Miliband, started advocating the concept of ‘one planet farming’, arguing that the food and farming sector was in the front line of efforts to combat climate change and safeguard the environment, and that it needed to reduce its ‘carbon footprint’ (see VR, July 15, 2006, vol 159, p 61). At the bva Congress, an address from the Chief Veterinary Officer (cvo), Dr Debby Reynolds, indicated just how quickly the Secretary of State's ideas have taken hold in his department. Discussing ‘One planet living in veterinary practice’, the cvo drew attention to the need to integrate sustainability more firmly into farming, and challenged the veterinary profession to consider the part it might play in that process. Emphasising the importance of partnership, she also argued that it was time to move away from the idea that the state had one function and others another, and to work together more closely.

The importance of an effective partnership between farmers, veterinary surgeons and government was underlined by the cvo's comments on sharing the costs of disease outbreaks. As the cvo pointed out, the idea that farmers should take more responsibility for disease control, and bear more of the costs, is gathering momentum, not just in the uk but also at eu level. This was made clear in a recent report on the European Community's animal health policy, which called for ‘a harmonised framework for cost and responsibility sharing across the eu, aimed at encouraging a culture of biosecurity’ (see VR, September 9, 2006, vol 159, p 329). There is some evidence that, in countries where cost-sharing schemes exist, farmers take more responsibility for disease control but, as the bva President, Dr Freda Scott-Park, pointed out at the congress, there is a fine line between cost sharing and total cost recovery, and any arrangements must be clearly defined. They must also be affordable — to farmers as well as the state. It will do nothing for animal health and welfare or, indeed, the carbon footprint of farming, if, as a result of undue economic constraints, uk farmers go out of business and livestock production moves abroad.

Reports of some of the congress debates appear in this week's issue of The Veterinary Record; others will be published over the next few weeks. Many issues were raised during the meeting, and not all of them solely concerned people. However, if there was an overriding message, it was that the human factor is important, and one which the profession and the Government would be unwise to ignore.

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