How can we address the veterinary workforce shortfall? - Veterinary Practice
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InFocus

How can we address the veterinary workforce shortfall?

“If we want to sustain a well-staffed, diverse and high-quality workforce, we all need to play a part”

One of the four “pillars” of my BEVA presidency relates to recruitment and retention. Not surprising, given that it was the main focus of our previous, outstanding president, David Rendle. We want to maintain momentum in this area, and I have heard so frequently from so many people that they cannot find equine vets; this is not a unique UK-based problem as the same complaint is found all over the world.

While recruitment and retention are laudable goals, they are also challenging to solve. I like the analogy of a bucket holding a body of water that represents the veterinary workforce (equine or other). The bucket has a tap feeding water into it and holes in the bucket letting the water out. The amount of water in the bucket is currently low, so there are two ways of increasing it: turning the tap on more or blocking off some of the holes. Thus, there are two main strategies to solve the problem:

  1. Increasing the number of equine vets
  2. Keeping equine vets in the profession

It’s a double whammy, for sure, but something which every current member of the profession should take some responsibility for if we are going to turn this trend around.

How can we increase the number of equine vets?

On the upside, becoming a vet is still a popular profession for school leavers, and most veterinary schools have turned the tap on more by increasing the pool of veterinary students and therefore the number of qualified veterinarians. The downside is that fewer and fewer individuals have been choosing equine practice, but BEVA is working hard to address this apparent free fall.

We have initiated several successful student evenings at all the vet schools to explain why equine practice should be perceived as an attractive option and to showcase the many joys and benefits of being an equine vet. These evenings have been, for the most part, very well attended, and feedback has been very positive, thanks to the efforts and the talent of Phil Cramp, who epitomises a positive-thinking vet. BEVA is really going to miss him when he leaves the Council.

It is imperative that the whole equine veterinary profession gives a positive view of our job – we need to be ‘glass half full’ people and not ‘glass half empty’

Some of the reasons students give for why they are not choosing to be an equine vet are not surprising. There is concern over long hours and “out of hours” work, but also some myths that need busting, such as the idea that all horse owners are difficult and that there is no point applying if you haven’t been brought up with horses. Consequently, we as a profession need to be positive about our job. There are so many good things about being an equine vet, as BEVA’s inspiring “Why I love being an equine vet” campaign a few years ago so entertainingly demonstrated. We are going to be reactivating this initiative later this year, so expect to see some amusing videos from Council members (and others) across your social media platforms!

Everyone can do their bit to enhance perceptions of equine practice. I believe that it is imperative that the whole equine veterinary profession gives a positive view of our job – we need to be “glass half full” people and not “glass half empty”! We need to stay passionate about our job by remembering what is good and avoid dwelling on what is less satisfactory… especially when we have students in the car with us!

Keeping equine vets in the profession

Our ability to block off the holes in our bucket is limited, but anything that makes the equine veterinary job more enjoyable so people stick with it or want to return after a career break is beneficial. This should involve all of us – fellow employees, employers and clients. In the past, BEVA has had initiatives to try to encourage owners to value their vets, such as the “Don’t break your vet” campaign, and we should all be working to raise public awareness of the shortage of vets and what the public can do to help.

We should all be working to raise public awareness of the shortage of vets and what the public can do to help

vet examining horse with stethoscope

There is a need to provide support in the workplace for junior vets just starting their careers in equine practice and to facilitate “returners”. Having just attended a SPVS conference for the first time as an invitee, I can vouch that there is plenty of this sort of support out there alongside the resources BEVA has been developing over the years, such as the toolkit for new graduates, access to coaching, and the Leg Up and “back in the saddle” schemes.

New toolkit for graduates

We have had a great response to the revamping of the new graduate/intern employment toolkit, not only from new graduates but also from the practices employing them. This toolkit seeks to set out a series of voluntary “goals” for the first jobs in equine practice, be it as an ambulatory, hospital or reproduction “intern”, so they get the support to develop and enjoy being an equine vet.

Mentoring scheme

BEVA’s Leg Up programme provides practical support for the careers and well-being of new vets. It pairs graduates with experienced equine vets for career support and is accessible to new vets during their first five years following graduation. The scheme offers one-to-one coaching from a specifically trained coach, who is also an equine vet. Independent coaching in this form has continued to provide many of our youngest members with vital support, increased resilience and improved confidence, helping them to achieve their potential and make decisions about their future career choices.

Independent coaching in this form has continued to provide many of our youngest members with vital support, increased resilience and improved confidence

It’s also a great opportunity for established equine practitioners to develop their mentoring skills by becoming coaches. Leg Up coaches are trained by a specialist mentoring professional via workshops, discussion forums and online toolkits. Once trained, they are paired with recent graduates to provide individual guidance and support to help their graduates explore the foundation years of their careers.

Adapt to survive

The equine veterinary profession also needs to adapt to the changing attitudes and demographics of our new veterinarians. We need to develop new ways of working that incorporate greater flexibility to include family and personal life. This can be the well-established strategies of part-time or “shared” working but also providing other opportunities. It can even include opportunities for out-of-hours working, which can actually be popular for some veterinarians on career breaks or with young families. The ability to select activities that enhance the working experience can also be popular.

Veterinarians generally have a lifelong interest in learning and acquiring new skills, and this should be incorporated into the practice job. This might include working for further qualifications or getting involved in practice-based research and quality improvements, which can also be monetised and therefore profitable activities.

Final thoughts

While many of these approaches are aimed at the young and mid-career vets, we should not forget the older generation (especially as I am one!). We should not lose sight of these individuals, as with the increased corporatisation of the profession, there will be fewer older vets retained through their partnership commitments in the future. While the pace of work may slacken off, their experience is greater, and many experienced vets would like opportunities to diversify their role and “give something back” to the profession.

Value your junior (and senior) colleagues and, even while we are all busy, try to spend time with and encourage the new generation of vets

In summary, if we want to sustain a well-staffed, diverse and high-quality workforce, we all need to play a part. Value your junior (and senior) colleagues and, even while we are all busy, try to spend time with and encourage the new generation of vets as there are truly some talented students out there and we want them in the equine profession!

Roger Smith

Roger Smith, MA, VetMB, PhD, FHEA, DEO, DipECVSMR, DipECVS, FRCVS, LAIA-ECVDI, is professor of equine orthopaedics at the Royal Veterinary College (RVC) and has particular interests in orthopaedic surgery, imaging, lameness and tendon research. He qualified from Cambridge University in 1987. After two years in practice, he undertook a surgery residency at the RVC and then a PhD on equine tendons. He remained at the RVC and was appointed professor in December 2003.

He holds a Diploma in equine orthopaedics, is a diplomate of the ECVS and the ECVSMR, and an RCVS specialist in equine surgery. He was awarded an RCVS fellowship in 2016 and was ECVS president in 2017. He is currently junior vice president of British Equine Veterinary Association.


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