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Den Leonard is a veterinary surgeon and clinical director of LLM Farm Vets, in Whitchurch, Shropshire.
Recently, I have met many vets, particularly younger members of the profession, working in corporate practice who are angered by the way their professional integrity is being publicly questioned by colleagues working in so-called independent practice. This is becoming a growing issue and something I wish to draw the profession’s attention to.
In some recent newsletters and public communications, there has seemingly been an orchestrated campaign to question the motivations of vets, depending on the ownership structure of the organisation they work in.
Typical comments I have read include: 1 ‘I believe that clients and their animals under veterinary care will be better served where owners work within the practice…Independent ownership offers vets the freedom to provide the treatments that are the best and most economic for individual clients.’ 2 ‘By not having external investors or non-veterinary management to answer to, we can make decisions with animal care our focus rather than “return on investment”.’ 3 ‘The structure of the veterinary business can potentially have a big impact on the type of care and service you and your pet receive…This allows vets working in independent practices to have much more clinical freedom when putting together treatment plans or choosing different or alternative brands of medication.’
Some of the rhetoric in these communications is worthy of the RCVS’s attention, because I believe it breaches several parts of the guidance in our Code of Professional Conduct.
For example, ‘5.2: Veterinary surgeons and veterinary nurses should not speak or write disparagingly about another veterinary surgeon or veterinary nurse. Colleagues should be treated fairly, without discrimination and with respect, in all situations and in all forms of communication.’ ‘6.5: Veterinary surgeons must not engage in any activity or behaviour that would be likely to bring the profession into disrepute or undermine public confidence in the profession.’ ‘23.7: Veterinary surgeons and veterinary nurses planning to produce advertisements or publicity which make claims of superiority or other comparisons with competitors should have particular regard to section 3 of the CAP Code [The UK Code of Non-broadcast Advertising, Sales Promotion and Direct Marketing] so as to ensure they do not mislead the public or be accused of so doing.’
Many of these disheartening communications seem to imply that the focus for all independent practices is animal care, while the focus for all corporate practices is return on investment. But this is simply not the case.
Our practice has recently joined VetPartners. A large part of the capitalisation (ownership) of the company is funded by people (largely vets) working within its practices. Also, every few months, share options are released to many team members within the organisation, which mature at many times their original value as the business matures. This is in sharp contrast to the eye-watering bank loans needed to secure ownership of many traditional practices.
These bank loans often take independent owners a lifetime to pay down. As such, independent vets are under just as much pressure for their businesses to be financially successful. You could even argue that a vet who personally carries the burden of the loan could have more incentive to make decisions slanted towards financial return to the business.
The behaviours and capabilities of the people are what are important
In any event, it shouldn’t be how a business is capitalised that is important, but rather the behaviours and capabilities of the people working within the business. Ultimately, success relies on servicing the client base with integrity and professionalism.
We only have to look to the world of politics to see just how divisive and toxic communication can become. I hope our profession will not follow suit by continuing to air our often misplaced perceptions of colleagues to the public. We need to show the next generation what professionalism is through our behaviours, particularly the way we conduct ourselves publicly. Many independent vets making these claims about colleagues working under other business models will inevitably hit the succession wall themselves. Maybe they already have, and the last thing anyone would want is to see egg on their faces.
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