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InFocus

Encouraging vets to be ‘generalists’

visited the new home of a much changed practice in Coventry

THERE are two possible fates
awaiting the holders of revolutionary
ideas: they can either disappear from
view or they enter the mainstream.
And concepts considered
dangerously radical and to be treated
with fear and suspicion by the
majority will often evolve into
something that is accepted, even
respected.

Such is the history of YourVets, the
Coventry practice formerly known as
the Pet Vaccination Clinic, which moved
half a mile into new premises on the
site of the old Standard
Triumph car plant in
September.

The clinic raised
eyebrows, and a few
hackles, among
neighbouring practices
when it opened in
1997, offering low cost
vaccinations for cat and
dog owners.

Its founder, Judy Walker, was
working as vet for one of the animal
welfare charities and had become
distressed by the number of cases of
parvovirus and other easily preventable
diseases in the local pet population. She
realised that there was a high proportion
of unvaccinated dogs whose owners
believed that they were unable to afford
the costs of inoculating their pets.

Expanded range

As the business grew and opened three
more branches in the West Midlands
area, it began to expand the range of
veterinary services on offer to include
other routine preventive care such as
worming and neutering.

Although the practice still faced
accusations of cherry-picking the easily
organised and more profitable elements
of companion animal care, the staff
insisted that they were providing
essential treatment for animals that
would never be seen within the walls of
a conventional practice.

Nowadays, it would be difficult to sustain either position in that highly
polarised argument. The four original
practices were bought by Cornwall-
based veterinary surgeon and
businessman Jonathan Stirling in 2004.

Under the new management, the
group has continued on its path towards
the mainstream.

Its two new premises at Coventry
and at Rayleigh in Essex are pretty well
indistinguishable from any other
gleaming new veterinary surgery – and
they offer all the emergency and in-
patient services that are difficult and costly to provide.

But one thing that hasn’t changed is the emphasis on providing value-for-money for pet owners who might well be unable to afford the extensive diagnostic work-ups and more expensive treatment options that are
encouraged by practices at the top end of the service range.

‘Too dependent on insurance’

He fears that the small animal arm of
the profession has become too
dependent on the pet insurance market
to sustain a growth in high-tech
services.

“What we seem to have forgotten is
that keeping a pet is not mandatory, it is
voluntary. It is a lifestyle choice and
consumer preferences can change. With
that goes our livelihood because it is
built on shifting sand. If the pet
insurance market hits problems, then
our profession is in serious trouble,”
Jonathan Stirling warns.

“This practice has only a small
percentage of insured clients and we
want to keep it that way because we are
looking after the pets owned by the Mr
and Mrs Smiths who can’t afford an
ever-rising insurance premium.”

A 1967 RVC graduate, Mr Stirling
has a background in traditional farm
practice and has retained a belief in the

virtues of
providing clients
with the best
possible care at a
price that they
can afford. “It
isn’t always
necessary to treat
a broken limb
with external
fixators: what is
wrong with using
a plaster of Paris
cast if the results are OK and that is what the client really
wants?”

Mr Stirling says the role of the staff
at YourVets is to provide a good quality
GP service. “We should do everything
that we can do and do it well. But if
something is beyond our level of
competencies, then it is our duty to refer
it on for specialist attention.”

He says the group has established a
very good working relationship with
local referrals centres like the Willows in
Solihull and the Rainsbrook Veterinary
Group in Leamington Spa.

Impatient

One of the biggest problems that the
group faces is in recruiting young
veterinary surgeons who are content
with the idea of spending their working
lives as generalists. Too many new
graduates are impatient to sign up for
certificate training and develop
specialised skills soon after beginning
their career.

For that reason, he says that he
prefers to take on new assistants who
have spent a couple of years in mixed
practice and through their dealings with
farm clients have learned the
importance of adopting pragmatic
approaches to treatment, he says.

The group also places an emphasis
on understanding the “branding” and
general ethos of the practice when
recruiting nursing and support staff.

The new clinic in Coventry is built
in a former kindergarten and there is
plenty of space in the waiting room for
clients to make themselves comfortable
and to interact with the nursing and
reception staff.

This is a certainly a contrast with the
old building in a row of shops which,
he admits, was a cramped and
sometimes stressful environment to
work in.

Generous allowance

The new building has a generous
allowance of six consulting rooms and
the business is expected to grow from
its current complement of five
veterinary surgeons. The building will be
operational 24 hours a day, providing
emergency services for its own clients
and those of two of the three branches – in Nuneaton and Stechford,
Birmingham.

Back of house, there is also a good
deal of scope for expansion beyond the
current list of 14,000 active clients.
There is a large prep area with two main
and one dental table, a separate digital
imaging suite, a main operating theatre
and a separate high biosecurity theatre
for orthopaedic operations.

Overall, the new premises occupies
more than 600 square metres and the
first task for the staff in adapting to
their new surroundings is in suppressing
any feelings of agrophobia.

“In the old building we were really
on top of each other all the time,” said
head veterinary surgeon Katie Wragg,
who has been seven years with the
practice.

“So it is difficult getting used to the
amount of space. But I don’t suppose
we will feel lonely for very long.”

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