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What will the future bring?
  1. Adele Waters

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TODAY thousands of small animal vets are gathered in Birmingham learning about new techniques and sharing best practice at the BSAVA's congress.

It is 60 years since the organisation launched with a mission to serve vets who treat companion animals and a membership fee of 2 guineas.

So what will the next 10 years bring? I spoke to vets and industry figures to gauge their predictions. Here I present their top 10.

1) Client expectations will continue to rise

An ‘always on’ culture means clients expect to get a prompt service, when they want it and are increasingly likely to make a noise on social media if they don't get it.

Customers will increasingly review vet services using online review sites, Facebook or Twitter and those practices that aren't consumer led will be in trouble. Practices that offer a high quality and personalised service with perhaps different payment options, competitive prices, continuity of care and quick access will do well.

2) Standards of care and service will rise

Rising client expectations will continue to drive up higher service standards. This will be reinforced by recognised accreditation – the RCVS Practice Standards Scheme – and the profession adopting a more evidence-based approach to delivering care.

3) Vet businesses will grow in size

Recent years have seen significant disruption of the UK veterinary practice market through corporatisation. Around 30 per cent of practices are thought to be owned by corporates but, say market analysts, this could be as high as 50 per cent within 18 months and perhaps peak at 70 per cent within the next five years.

Consolidation is extending to continental Europe. The merger announced between Swedish company Evidensia and the UK's Independent Vetcare will create the largest vet group in Europe. CVS, the largest veterinary group in the UK, is now buying up practices in Europe.

There is some resistance, however. Strong independents will also expand. They will see their fleet-footedness as an important factor in a marketplace where speedy innovation pays. Federations and collectives of independent practices will join forces to combine their lobbying power and marketing appeal to consumers favouring a ‘personal touch’.

And in a service industry where client satisfaction is key, the dream of running an independent business is still possible for any young, ambitious vet with excellent client-facing skills and financial backing. Sole-operating businesses are still being set up, although in small numbers. Some would see an opportunity here, particular in niche areas.

4) The small animal sector will continue to be the number 1 choice for vets

Small animal practice is firmly established as the largest sector in UK veterinary care. Despite tough recruitment challenges, the sector will still dominate. The biggest challenge in terms of workforce is Brexit and its impact on EU vets currently working in the UK. Without question, the small animal sector would be badly affected if their right to stay and work cannot be guaranteed.

5) Increasing specialisation

From soft tissue surgeons to ophthalmologists, more vets are building expertise in niche areas. This is evidenced by the BSAVA's 16 satellite or affiliate groups, representing specific areas of practice.

More vets see the attraction of gaining a postgraduate diploma so they can work as Specialists, accepting referrals from general practice colleagues.

6) Greater use of technology

Technology will be an important driver of change in the next 10 years, just as it has been in the last. We can not only expect to see advances in monitoring platforms, diagnostic equipment and therapeutics, but we can expect digital applications to improve the sector's processes, from managing workload, referring patients and releasing efficiencies.

We are likely to see greater use of telemedicine and more wearable devices that monitor pet health and symptom control. Expect to see such technologies generate real-time data that will create new solutions.

7) Cost pressures will grow

Inevitably, advances in treatments, greater specialisation and technical expertise will lead to more expensive treatments and higher costs.

The UK has approximately 16.5 million pets (cats and dogs) but only 25 per cent are insured so there is concern about whether sufficient numbers of clients are willing to pay for a gold standard service.

Some vets remain optimistic, pointing out that their business model could survive without insurance income, though it would be tougher.

In the referral sector, however, the dynamic is different – the insurance industry funds 80 per cent of work and regards escalation of costs as worrying and unsustainable.

We should expect to see some shift in the insurance model – either in terms of a more segmented offer or in vet fees or both.

8) Vets will enjoy a better work-life balance

Already younger vets are expecting not do ‘on call’ work and dedicated out of hours services are expanding – for example, Vets Now currently partners with 1000 practices across the UK.

Vets increasingly regard time off as essential and there is a greater appetite for flexible working generally. The signs are that vets will continue to demand a better work-life balance. With one of the highest suicide rates of any profession (around four times higher) these sorts of choices are welcome.

The Mind Matters Initiative, which was set up two years ago by the RCVS, has opened the door to a greater awareness of the importance of mental health within the veterinary professions. With time, we should expect to see greater openness, self-acceptance and resilience.

9) Better use of nursing skills

Vet nurses have already developed their roles but the full potential of this highly skilled workforce has yet to be realised. We can expect to see greater numbers of ambitious nurses running clinics, monitoring long-term conditions, seeing patients post-op.

Vet nurses want and deserve a protected title and a clear scope of practice but, while that future waits for necessary legislation, there is already sufficient scope to develop the nurse-client offer under the current Schedule 3 arrangements.

10) The future is female

For years male students dominated UK vet schools but all that changed in 1988 when, for the first time, the number of women graduating outstripped the number of men. Now three quarters of graduates are female.

Across the profession as a whole, the ratio of women to men now stands at 54:46.

Since the vast majority of nurses are female, and most vet retirees are male, the future of working life in a veterinary practice is a female one.

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