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Vet futures
Disillusionment among young vets: causes and potential solutions


Young veterinary graduates met at the House of Lords last month to discuss the causes of disillusionment being reported by those in the early years of their careers, and to propose solutions. The meeting captured the views of veterinarians working in both clinical and non-clinical roles, including graduates working outside the veterinary sector. Anthony Ridge, parliamentary intern to Lord Trees, reports

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LAST year, the BVA's Voice of the Veterinary Profession survey reported that 41 per cent of graduates said that their careers had failed to match their expectations. It found that more than half of graduates from the past eight years were seeking a change in work, with a growing proportion considering careers outside of clinical practice.

The meeting at the House of Lords on September 14 was hosted by veterinary peer Lord Trees, and organised in conjunction with the RCVS and the BVA. It was designed to explore the possible causes of this feeling of disillusionment among young graduates four to six years after qualification and brought together 40 clinical and non-clinical veterinarians, as well as veterinary graduates working outside the veterinary sector. Clinical attendees included companion animal, farm, equine and mixed practitioners, while the non-clinical group included veterinarians working in research, industry and government roles, as well as owners of non-clinical businesses, consultants working outside of the veterinary sector and several others. The meeting provided an opportunity for those with personal, direct and relevant experience of veterinary disillusionment to debate this important and frequently emotive issue.

The young graduates were welcomed by Lord Trees, as well as by the RCVS President, Chris Tufnell, and the then BVA President, Sean Wensley, before Anthony Ridge presented a summary of the 218 responses received to a survey on disillusionment and non-clinical career paths that had been sent out alongside invitations to the meeting.

James Andrews, chief executive of Felcana, a veterinary tech start-up company, then presented a personal, non-clinical viewpoint, drawing from his experiences in management consultancy. He proposed that veterinarians frequently undervalued their skills set outside of clinical practice and encouraged veterinary graduates to think more broadly about their career options.

The introductory speeches quickly gave way to discussion sessions that formed the bulk of the meeting. This provided an opportunity for free, open and anonymous debate under the Chatham House Rule. In an opening plenary session chaired by Lord Trees, there was wide consensus among delegates that disillusionment (defined as a failure of career to meet expectation) was widely prevalent among vets in clinical practice, with some also identifying disillusionment among veterinary students in their final years at veterinary school.

Lord Trees (above) hosted the young vets' meeting in the Palace of Westminster. Delegates also enjoyed a tour of the House of Lords and drinks on the terrace overlooking the River Thames

Several delegates in non-clinical roles commented that disillusionment was largely confined to clinical work and that they felt more satisfied in their current roles. The perceived stigma associated with leaving clinical practice was frequently mentioned, with many feeling that non-clinical work was widely regarded as not being ‘real vet work’. However, the experiences of several non-clinical delegates suggested that this need not be a major barrier, as veterinarians were generally well respected by non-clinical professional colleagues and, in some cases, were in great demand.

Given the consensus that disillusionment was largely confined to clinical practice, the following session focused predominantly on this aspect of veterinary work. Delegates were divided into four groups, with two groups of clinical veterinarians and two non-clinical groups. Each group was asked to identify and rank what it considered to be the top five causes of disillusionment in clinical practice (Table 1).

Table 1:

Most significant causes of disillusionment in clinical practice as ranked* by clinical veterinarians (groups A and B) and non-clinical veterinarians (groups C and D)

There was a wide range of ratings between groups, reflecting the diversity of opinions, but, by combining scores, it was possible to identify some general trends. As identified in the BVA Voice of the Veterinary Profession survey, lack of opportunities for career development was seen as the primary cause of disillusionment; insufficient pay and long working hours also rated highly. However, much discussion centred on ‘lack of management and support by bosses’ and, in contrast to the results of the BVA survey, this was cited by all groups as being one of the most significant causes of disillusionment.

Several delegates commented that they had experiences of feeling undervalued in clinical practice and many non-clinical veterinarians reported more positive interactions with line managers and human resources in their current roles compared with previous roles in clinical practice.

A number of other factors were also identified and there was a marked difference between clinical and non-clinical groups in their prioritisation of issues involving expectations in clinical roles. The clinical groups both felt that unreasonable client expectations were a significant cause of disillusionment and commented that many clients had unrealistic expectations about the cost of veterinary treatment. In contrast, both non-clinical groups felt that unrealistic job expectations by veterinarians were more to blame for disillusionment and that clinical practice is currently attracting individuals who are unprepared or unsuited for the realities of clinical roles.

Possible solutions

In the final session of the meeting, attention turned towards finding solutions. Delegates were again divided into small groups but this time the groups were mixed to encourage a diversity of viewpoints. They were encouraged to think freely in a brainstorming exercise and suggested a broad set of actions encompassing pre-university, university and postgraduation measures (Table 2).

Table 2:

Summary of suggestions from delegates on counteracting veterinary disillusionment

The suggestions included actions that might be taken by veterinary students, veterinarians, practice managers, universities, professional bodies, veterinary CPD providers, politicians and the media. Many mirrored actions currently underway as part of the RCVS/BVA Vet Futures action plan, including a review of veterinary student selection and support, encouraging non-veterinary business experience in vet students, promoting veterinary leadership, providing an online hub of veterinary career resources, improving mentoring and providing tools to help clients understand costs associated with veterinary treatment. Other suggested measures were more novel, and perhaps more controversial, including converting clinical veterinary training to a separate postgraduate qualification, creating an accreditation scheme for practices employing new graduates, and the introduction of mandatory pet insurance for pet owners.

Time precluded further analysis of the risks and benefits of such actions and how they might be implemented, but it was clear that no single measure would be sufficient in isolation. The meeting succeeded in its aim of providing a forum for discussion, but, in summing up, Lord Trees commented that there was still much work to be done. He encouraged veterinarians to continue to work together to identify and implement the changes necessary to reduce disillusionment and also emphasised how the generic skills of veterinarians could be applied to both clinical and non-clinical roles.

Many delegates identified strongly with the shared experiences of those attending, and commented on how the meeting had encouraged them to think more positively about their career choices. One clinical delegate commented that ‘It was absolutely brilliant to meet such a lovely group of people who are so passionate about the future of the profession.’ A non-clinical delegate said: ‘Having taken a non-conventional career path straight after graduating, I've spent years battling against popular opinion that I'm “wasting” my degree. The meeting was probably the first time I haven't felt like the outsider – it was really emboldening to be in a room full of people who truly care about improving the profession for vets in all capacities. I will no longer describe myself as “not a real vet” anymore!’

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