My name is James Greenwood and I am a vet. I initially turned a blind eye to the plight of our junior doctors. Then reports of disillusionment, emigration and even suicide started to follow. For two professions that historically share a friendly rivalry, I fear we have found some unsavoury common ground. I will attempt to shed light.
It comes as no surprise that being a vet is an emotional vocation. For each consultation we take on a different script and persona. Every 10 minutes our patter must shift effortlessly from an air of condolence to that of celebration, suppressing our own emotions to remain ever ‘professional’. From euthanasia to caesarean, this roller coaster never stops and we are expected to hop on board whether we feel like it or not.
There’s also the issue of money. Most of you have to fork out to see us and most of us hate talking about it. Put bluntly, you pay and we perform. The pet owning population has a long held perception that vets earn high as vets bills are expensive and unwanted, both financially and emotionally.
Without doubt, as more private practices are selling out to venture capitalist groups, there are a good number of practice owners reaping some heavy reward. But what about the employed vet, the veterinary equivalent to the 'junior doctor'?
The most recent survey suggests new graduate veterinary salaries have dropped 3.7% and a vet qualified 11 to 15 years can hope to earn an average £48k compared to a doctor earning up to £83k and dentists £110k.
Perhaps that goes someway to explain why a Vet Futures report by the British Veterinary Association and The Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons in 2015 revealed an alarming level of career dissatisfaction amongst vets qualified within the last 8 years? Over half of those interviewed said the career had not matched their expectations and 1 in 10 were thinking of leaving the profession entirely.
I can’t speak for the generation of vets ahead of me, or those just starting out. But I can speak for my own and I know feeling overworked and undervalued is a common factor in many of my graduate peers re-thinking their career choice.
But are we just a whining generation of underperformers? Do we expect too much reward for too little input?
Interestingly, CM Research surveyed 3000 vets from across Europe and the US. Vets in the UK see on average 29 patients a day - the highest daily caseload throughout Europe and the US.
However, salaries for UK vets remain far lower than their US or European counterparts. No surprise then that UK practice performance has grown, with 45% of practices doing ‘slightly better’ and 13% doing ‘much better’ than last year.
It seems junior vets are working pretty hard after all but it also appears they are not reaping fair reward, and with limited reward, what of motivation? Obviously, the clinical work itself offers massive personal reward and is a major motivational drive but is it so ethically wrong for a vet to aspire to earn enough to start paying off a mortgage?
In my opinion, compassion fatigue is the result of feeling undervalued and unmotivated. For the general population, I imagine the idyllic notion of being a vet does not conjure images of depression, let alone suicide.
Tragically, vets are statistically four times more likely to take their own lives than the general population. Yet, for decades, the veterinary profession has brushed this grubby little secret under the carpet hoping the black dog of depression would move out and scratch at someone else’s door.
Junior vets are suffering an unprecedented level of career dissatisfaction in a profession that already struggles with alarming rates of mental health issues. Ultimately we are on the brink of a mass exodus of an entire veterinary generation. From looking at how the veterinary industry has been shaped over the past 8-10 years, young vets are choosing flight over fight.
These are the vets with experience, often popular with clients and clinically sound. Like the junior doctors, these vets are valuable. They are profitable and the future of the veterinary profession depends on them to remain in practice.
If I had chosen to study medicine at university, I would probably now be categorised as a ‘junior doctor’. Back in May, I invited junior doctors to email me their thoughts on the then proposed contract via social media. I received reports of disillusionment, frustration and plans to emigrate.
The new contract suggested junior doctors should work even harder by spreading themselves thinner, working more unsociable hours as a proportion of their working week to provide cover at weekends and evenings.
Despite a base salary increase, major cuts to the banding pay system (the doctor’s equivalent to overtime) would have essentially required them to perform this task with little to no increased remuneration. In fact, some would potentially be paid less than they do currently.
As a junior vet, this all sounds strangely familiar. Many UK junior vets are already working under such ‘Jeremy Hunt’ style contracts. It is written into contracts to work long, unsociable and weekend hours as standard with no additional overtime pay and an expectation to cope.
I’m sure there will be some reading this thinking ‘he doesn’t care about the animals, just the money’. However, this is the reality of working within a caring profession. You care. In fact, you care so much that you will sacrifice your own health to meet the demands of others. But this is a job and we should not be made to feel guilty for raising the issue. We need to earn a living and that should correlate fairly to the hard work performed.
Vets cannot compare themselves directly to the union led, public sector medical profession. The government dictates the future of the NHS. However, vets have an advantage over doctors in that they can steer the future of their profession in whichever direction they choose.
Vets have always been in competition with each other. We compete to get into university, compete for jobs and compete viciously as practices to retain clients. It’s a game of ‘every (wo)man for themselves’.
As with the doctors, vets must learn to find a unified, cross-generational voice. We must come together to collectively decide the future of our profession, both clinically and economically to ensure all vets at all stages of their career can benefit mutually and gain fair reward.
I have an appreciable empathy for those junior doctors that fought for a fair deal and I admire their bravery to speak out. I am not generally in favour of strike action but in this case, I am. With the support of consultants (possibly in fear of being next in the firing line), the strike has not put anyone at risk but effectively highlighted the desperate situation. The proposed contract has subsequently been withdrawn and a referendum vote for a more balanced contract is due on Wednesday.
Junior vets, similar to the junior doctors, are clearly struggling and we need support from within our veterinary profession. Junior vets cannot go on strike and I doubt many would actually want to, but instead I ask our senior vets, currently with all the power, to consider where our future lies.
I love being a vet. Every day is different and every day brings with it a new surprise. And I love animals. I get to spend all day in the company of animals and for that I am eternally grateful. It is a wonderful privilege.
In the recent weeks of turmoil and unrest, the conclusion to the Junior Doctors fight may fall on somewhat distracted ears but I for one will congratulate them now, which ever way their vote sways and say their plight has been courageous and worthwhile. More importantly, they have set an example to us vets. Treat each other fairly.
Today, a Vet Futures summit is being held by The British Veterinary Association and The Royal Veterinary College in London to discuss the future of our profession. During the coming days, our doctors will seal their own fate. I, for one, am hoping that today may also mark the start of a new era for our vets too.
Since I released this article on 4/7/16, it has had over 16,000 views.
Despite the BMA members rejecting the deal reached in May, the Junior doctors' contract was imposed on the 6/7/16 regardless. What happens next is yet to be decided...
On the 7/7/16 the BVA and the RCVS released a Vet Futures Action Plan in response to the issues raised at the Vet Futures summit. The action plan covers many of the issues felt in this article, and more, and is a positive step forward for our profession.
The action plan can be viewed at: http://vetfutures.org.uk/resources