VETERINARY nurses celebrated the achievements of their profession’s first 50 years and looked forward to the challenges of the next half century at a symposium in London in June.
The meeting at the RCVS headquarters marked the anniversary of the college approving the first formal training scheme for what were then called animal nursing auxiliaries.
Since then the VN profession has passed a number of important milestones in its development. That culminated this year with the introduction of the first draft of a code of professional conduct and the establishment in April of a formal disciplinary system, for which the first case is now under consideration, said Liz Branscombe, chairman of VN Council.
There are currently 8,346 veterinary nurses registered with the Royal College and a further 1,542 listed VNs who had been working in a similar role before the registration system was introduced.
That growth in numbers has been accompanied by expansion in both the quality of training provided for VNs and the responsibilities that they have then been able to take on. So along with the introduction of diplomas in advanced medical and surgical nursing, senior VNs have also taken responsibility for providing training for their colleagues at further education colleges and more recently on degree courses, she noted.
New spheres of activity
Greater responsibilities have also been take on by VNs in a number of non-nursing roles, as representatives for animal health companies, as practice managers, and now even as owners of their own veterinary practices.
Meanwhile, there has been movement away from the VN’s traditional base in small animal practice to new areas like equine and exotic species, together with the introduction of male nurses, although these remain a rare breed, making up only around 2% of the nursing roster.
There are, however, still some major challenges to be overcome – notably a lack of understanding from clients and the wider general public about the role played by registered VNs in a modern practice.
“We do have an identity as a profession; what I hope is that our identity as far as the general public is concerned can be raised – we still need to do some work on that,” noted Sue Badger, a teaching fellow at the Bristol veterinary school and a member of the VN Council.
There is also the perennial issue of low pay in the VN profession which was cited by Liz Branscombe as the main reason for the dissatisfaction felt by a considerable number of her colleagues, with a quarter of the respondents in one survey stating that they intended to leave veterinary practice within the next five years.
The concern felt by VNs about their low wages has not always been treated sympathetically by their employers. Sue Badger recalled a senior practitioner in the 1970s who reportedly said, “We can do without RANAs, we ran our practices without them before and can do so again if they price themselves out of the market.
“They must accept that job satisfaction will be their major reward, not money.”
Thankfully, such antediluvian attitudes are encountered much more rarely now that VNs have become accepted as vital members of the clinical team. Indeed, Society of Practising Veterinary Surgeons president Richard Holborow told the meeting that a key priority for his presidential term was to develop closer links with the British Veterinary Nursing Association to enable them to collaborate on key issues affecting the members of both organisations.
One of the first items on the agenda at such a meeting was identified by Sue Badger as the threat posed by the current financial climate to the career prospects of future VNs.
She was worried that practices trying to cut costs during difficult times would cut down on training programmes for new nurses, and there were genuine fears that some colleges may pull out of VN training because such practical-based courses are expensive to run.
As a fledgling profession, VNs have always been vulnerable to external influences and the British Veterinary Nursing Association formed in 1965 had to change its name a year later after its own sister profession objected to the use of the term “nurse” in the title. It then became the BANAA until a change in legislation on protected titles allowed it to revert to the original name in 1984.
Just over a quarter of a century later, the BVNA now finds itself wanting legislative changes that would ensure that the title VN will only be used by those who have completed a recognised course of training and agreed to abide by the responsibilities of the new code of conduct.
Hilary Orpet course director of the nurse BSc programme at the London veterinary school, told colleagues that DEFRA officials have responded positively to the BVNA’s request that this would be considered during any deliberations by the government on a Veterinary Services Act.
“They told us to go away and think and then come back with our ideas for regulation,” she said.
So the BVNA has established a working party to examine how it wants the term “veterinary nurse” to be defined and what would be the responsibilities of members under any future legislation.
“A nurse’s role must be wider than those defined in schedule 3 (defining tasks that can be carried out by registered VNs but not by lay people),” she said, adding that the whole point about modern veterinary nursing is that it should provide holistic care, taking into account the animal’s emotional and behavioural requirements as well as its physical needs.
RCVS president Peter Jinman welcomed the association’s efforts to define exactly what was meant by “veterinary nursing” as this was an essential precursor to any legislation designed to protect the name.
He pointed out that any restrictions on using the term would be there to protect the public and their animals and not the professionals themselves.
“The origin of the name veterinary surgeon was because of the many charlatans out there at the time who were conning the public, and it was accepted by the public and Parliament that animals needed to be protected.”
Hilary Orpet agreed that there were unqualified “veterinary nurses” working in practice whose lack of proper training meant that they too might be a danger to the animals under their care. However, any future legislation would also have to provide opportunities for experienced and competent nursing assistants to join the register.
Valerie Beatty, registrar of the Veterinary Council of Ireland, explained the arrangements that were made for the Irish equivalent of listed VNs when the Veterinary Practice Act 2005 came into force to provide statutory regulation of both veterinary surgeons and VNs in the Republic.
This gave unqualified veterinary nurses who had been practising before 2004 a six-month period from January 2008 in which they could apply for provisional registration, after which the term VN became a protected title.
All 155 nurses on the provisional register are expected to have completed an approved educational programme if they wish to remain on the register when the provisional category ceases to exist on 31st December 2012, she said.