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Thinking more widely

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ONE of the more memorable veterinary publications of 2014 was an American-style comic book called ‘V-Force: Veterinarians to the Rescue!’. Produced by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), this introduced six new colourful superhero characters – Regulatory Veterinarian, Army Veterinarian, Industry Veterinarian, Research Veterinarian, Private Practice Veterinarian and Farm Veterinarian – and, through a series of illustrated stories, showed them protecting both animal and public health and saving the world from evils such as disease and hunger. The idea behind the book, which was aimed at children and is still available via the AVMA's website,1 was to encourage more children to think about becoming vets and to broaden perceptions of the different roles that vets can fulfil (VR, August 16/23, 2014, vol 175, p 156).

Vets can and do work in a wide range of areas as described in the AVMA's comic book, and they certainly have the skills to do this. However, thinking in terms of the profession as a whole, the question arises as to whether those skills are being applied widely enough for maximum impact, and whether there are enough veterinarians working in all of the areas where their skills are needed. Thinking about this in relation to another group of American-style superheroes, would the Avengers in the current cinematic blockbuster ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’ manage to pack half as much punch if they were made up only of, say, Captain America and Iron Man, without the assistance of Thor, the Black Widow and the Hulk?

These thoughts are brought to mind by a recent blog on the Vet Futures website ( Vet Futures is a project being led by the RCVS and the BVA which is looking to the future of the veterinary profession to ensure that it remains sustainable and relevant and which, as part of this process, is running a series of monthly blogs to stimulate debate about various aspects of veterinary professional life. The blog for March, by Javier Dominguez Orive of the Food Standards Agency, discusses the role of vets in helping to ensure safe food production – specifically, at their role in food safety ‘beyond the farm gate’.

Among points made by Dr Dominguez Orive are that livestock farming exists because production animals will become food at some stage and that, with their understanding of animal physiology, health and production, and of diseases affecting both animals and people, vets are well placed to help ensure food safety. At the same time, he suggests that, while this role is widely recognised and accepted in many parts of the world, including continental Europe, it is less well recognised – and possibly less valued – in the UK, where vets tend to be recognised for their work in a clinical setting rather than outside it. The reasons for this, he suggests, may lie in education, with veterinary schools in other parts of the world placing greater emphasis on the veterinarian's role beyond the clinical context, and encouraging students to think more positively about such roles. There is, he suggests, a need to do more to inform and expose undergraduates to other job opportunities and give them the confidence to explore non-clinical careers, and not to think of themselves as ‘second class’ vets in the process.

Dr Dominguez Orive's blog and some of the comments that have been posted on the website in response to it raise some important questions about the wider role of veterinarians, and not just in relation to food safety. Among them is whether enough is being done to encourage the next generation of vets to think constructively about jobs outside clinical practice and, if not, what might be done about it. With more students entering veterinary school, will there be enough clinical jobs in the future to satisfy everyone's clinical ambitions? Is the veterinary profession and society content with the status quo, or might they want to change things? Some of those responding to the blog remark that his comments might equally apply in other areas such as pathology and disease surveillance, as well as research, with one respondent suggesting that research careers, especially outside veterinary clinical research, are not even on the radar of most vets. There is a suggestion, too, that a veterinary education should not be seen in a narrow vocational way, but as an education that can open many doors in many different arenas.

A lot of all this comes down to the veterinary profession's sense of identity which, to some extent, is what the Vet Futures project is all about. Is the veterinary profession happy to continue to pursue a largely clinical route, or does it want to extend its influence and apply its skills more widely? Neither option is necessarily inappropriate, but, looking ahead, like Hawkeye and the other superheroes in the new Avengers film, it might be useful for the profession to have more than one string to its bow.

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