More of an NHS for animals: no bad thing? - Veterinary Practice
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More of an NHS for animals: no bad thing?

Periscope continues the series of reflections on issues of current concern.

MANY years ago I remember saying something to my boss at the time. I had been in practice for a few years and like many recent graduates then and now, I was becoming slightly disillusioned with the long hours, short holidays, poor pay and … the list went on.

Contemplating my lot one afternoon I had that eureka moment that often comes out of the blue and sheds light on a hitherto dark and brooding problem.

“What we need,” I said to my boss just before evening surgery started (my face alight with excitement and hope) “is a National Health Service for animals.”

He clearly didn’t share my vision. “That’s the very last thing we need,” he replied somewhat curtly, his mouth twisted into a rigor like grimace that transmitted the unspoken words, “and don’t you ever let me hear you say that again.”

Clearly, I thought, we have a very different perspective on things. And looking back I suppose why wouldn’t we have had?

Where I was coming from was that a lot of people didn’t seem to be able to afford to pay for the treatment that we were offering their pets. The NHS provided health care for humans that was free at the point of delivery and an NHS for animals could do the same. Problem solved.

Secondly, apart from junior hospital doctors (who worked all the hours God sent – no Working Time Directive back then), doctors working for the NHS seemed to have a better structured employment in terms of hours worked and nights on call than your average veterinary assistant in an average private veterinary practice.

Plus a better salary and a well-defined career structure whether they became GPs or remained in the hospital sector; plus a good pension scheme, decent holiday entitlement, good maternity rights, sick pay, CPD – this list also went on.

The Holy Grail

From a young veterinary assistant’s viewpoint, what wasn’t there to like about working for an organisation like the NHS? This truly was the Holy Grail; a land of milk and honey.

My boss though saw things very differently. He was the owner of a decent-sized private veterinary practice. He actually paid his assistants (including me) a salary that was towards the upper end of the going rate and the conditions of work were certainly better than those in many of the practices where my contemporaries worked.

But, just like most owners of practices then, and indeed I would assume now, he creamed off the profits of all those assistants working for him and received a substantial salary as a result.

The last thing he wanted was a National Health Service for animals that provided a real career structure and the opportunity for everybody to reach a senior position (assuming they had the right skills and experience and work ethic) and provided a more equal sharing of the salary cake between those of equal ability. No, he didn’t want that at all. Where was the pro t (for him) in that?

I was reminded of my vision of all those years ago by the recent reports that the PDSA is currently seeking to expand its remit. The intention appears to be to offer treatment at a reduced charge to those people who currently fall outside its existing eligibility criteria but nonetheless are clearly living with financial challenges.

Challenges that may preclude them from accessing private veterinary care for their pets.

Predictably, this proposal has not been met with universal acclaim by those vets who own private veterinary practices and who probably see this as the thin end of a very large wedge.

Just like my former boss, I guess they have a point but I see no reason for the status quo to be maintained solely to ensure that they receive a substantial salary and a decent pension for their efforts at the expense of many of those who work for them – especially if there are ways of working that would promote a wider good for animals, clients and employees alike.

The PDSA proposal

What the PDSA seems to be proposing is very much the beginnings of a National Health Service for animals, albeit one that whilst not intended to be free at the point of delivery, will be at well below the current “market rate” and will almost certainly avoid the need for owners to make treatment decisions based on their financial situation rather than on what is or isn’t best for their animal.

As a veterinary surgeon committed to the improvement of animal welfare, what’s not to like about that?

If I were a young veterinary surgeon just starting out in small animal practice, the opportunities offered by this change of tack on the PDSA’s behalf would not pass me by unnoticed. No indeed not.

This change would alert me to the fact that here would be increased opportunities to join an organisation that provides its employees with many of the things lacking in most private veterinary practices: a competitive and transparent salary structure; a meaningful and transparent career structure; employee benefits such as pension and sick pay; holiday entitlement in line with other large employers; flexibility of employment such as part-time, career breaks, periods of unpaid leave, etc. Does this sound tempting to some of you?

Clearly, the PDSA has advantages over private practices in terms of tax benefits as well as a small army of volunteers working for nothing to support it and bolster its finances.

Crying foul

Many in veterinary practice (it has already started) will cry “foul” and “unfair competition” if it is allowed to go ahead with its proposals. Some of them may be justified in their views though they should rest easy in the knowledge that there will always be clients with sufficient money who want to be seen at a time convenient to them and not to sit in a queue in a packed waiting room full of people they would not usually associate with.

In spite of it being too late for me, I welcome this development as a real opportunity. An opportunity to improve the welfare of many thousands of animals throughout the country and improve the welfare of many veterinary surgeons too.

At a time when suicide, depression and addiction among members of the profession remains high, surely this can justifiably be said to be no bad thing.

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