A job that hangs in the balance - Veterinary Practice
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A job that hangs in the balance

Richard O. Sanderson, BVSc, MRCVS, graduated from the University of Liverpool in 2009, where he received the Alumni award for academic excellence for five years. He published a paper reviewing management strategies for canine OA in the April 2009 edition of the Veterinary Record and completed his elective in equine orthopaedics writing his project on stem cell therapy. He is now a general mixed practitioner in Shropshire. He can be contacted on rosanderson_vet@hotmail.co.uk.

WHAT would you do if you weren’t a vet? A difficult question I know and one I had rarely addressed until recently.

I had no back-up plan as such for the likely event I wouldn’t have gained a place to read veterinary science. Many of my friends trained for alternate professions such as aeronautics, medicine, law and teaching but I struggle when trying to place myself in these other privileged professions.

Even in the infancy of my career I feel I have grown into the profession and am starting to feel, as many of my colleagues are, a more established vet.

But our job is not a secure one. By this I am not meaning security in terms of redundancies or lack of jobs, although the current economic downturn has required the veterinary community to face up to the increased likelihood of these problems.

Instead, I mean security in terms of our ability to practise for our entire careers. A veterinary surgeon has a demanding and diverse workload which is accompanied by inherent dangers.

Injured on farms

In the past month I have suffered, on farms, both a damaged shoulder and a fairly serious ankle injury. Both of these have affected my ability to work and medical advice was to take significant time off work.

Having time off isn’t really in my nature and as such I decided to go in and do office duties and after a few days started doing some light consulting and surgical work.

The injuries I suffered could have been significantly worse. They should have prohibited me working in any capacity for a short period but further or more considerable injury could have rendered me unable to work long term. And my injuries are merely a tip of an iceberg of the potential dangers.

Tomorrow, and God forbid it happening, any of us could be involved in a car crash on the way to a prolapse, be bitten by a dog and suffer nerve damage or be kicked by a horse in the head and our career could be over. And these are just examples of the numerous physical dangers we face on a daily basis.

What about all the psychological and mental dangers associated with our chosen career? The veterinary profession does have one of the most disturbing suicide rates in the world after all and I am not a huge believer in coincidences.

Health and safety often appears compromised in the veterinary profession; my father works in this area and I am absolutely certain that if he were to come and analyse TB testing, for example, the advice would be clear: don’t do it.

In addition, we often fail to help ourselves. I am typing this article having been on call last night and getting bitten by a cat (May has not been my month!) that had not been marked as having a “suspect temperament”, to be polite.

The simple and quick placement of a “CARE” sign would have prevented such a simple yet potentially damaging injury. We also seem to under-use muzzles, a point I am particularly guilty off. Trusting owners who say “Billy doesn’t bite” is dangerous – he isn’t usually poked and prodded in a strange room by someone he doesn’t know!

Career in the balance

And it is in light of my recent history that I realised just how much our career hangs in the balance; I am disappointed that I was so frivolous when it came to protecting my career and my income.

If I were to receive an injury today that would prevent me working again in my career, it would drastically change my lifestyle and more importantly how happy I was with life.

And what protection do I have? I remember being advised as a student about “income protection” and not taking a great deal of notice and only now am I looking into it.

I have very little in personal protection in place for such a devastating event and as such looked into the employment protection my fellow new graduates and I have in place. Speaking to many of my colleagues there seems to be a fairly standard level of “protection”, a term I have to use lightly.

Following an injury which affected the ability to work, the average time on full sick pay seems to be around 3-6 months, after which you are entitled to statutory sick pay, a sum which would not allow many of us to live to the lifestyle we have become accustomed to.

In addition, accident protection seems to be a weak spot – many people expect a work-related injury to be covered. We all take risks on a daily basis in every task we do and we often do so in our quest to do our best for the animals committed to our care. And often, we do so blindly without understanding just how unprotected we are.

It is my belief that employers should protect their staff against the dangers we encounter on a daily basis and that they should do this because they expect us to complete the tasks that bring that risk. By expecting assistants to complete the tasks at their peril, they should feel obliged to provide protection to their staff.

If employers don’t have such a policy in place it is important to know this and to ask that this is in place or take out personal protection ourselves.

More experienced members of the profession seem too often to tell me, in passing, that new graduates are becoming more demanding and that in their day they just got on with it. Times change: for example, many of them bought into a practice and the price reflected goodwill.

With the rise of the commercial chains, how much goodwill is involved now? And as such, why should any new graduates place themselves in a position of risk when employers don’t protect our long-term earnings?

Income protection is an effective and essential part of practising as a veterinary surgeon and from my recent experiences I have learned just how narrow the tightrope to long-term prosperity is. I believe that employers should protect their staff, given the precarious nature of our profession, and would advise any new graduate to ensure that either your soon-to-be employers have this in place or you put this in place yourself. At the end of the day, it takes merely a split second for a veterinarian to be unable to work as a result of a workrelated injury.

So what would you do if you couldn’t be a vet anymore? Let’s hope none of us has to answer that question any time soon and that those who do have their lifestyle and income protected.

Be brave and remember: you have no obligation to risk yourself at any point and even less obligation if your employers themselves haven’t protected you against such risks.

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