New operation gearing up to respond quickly to changing circumstances - Veterinary Practice
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New operation gearing up to respond quickly to changing circumstances

JOHN BONNER talks to Lynne Hill, chief executive of a new enterprise at the Bristol veterinary school

THE Bristol veterinary school is spinning out its clinical departments as a separate company in a bid to meet the challenges posed to traditional university practices by the growth in private referral centres.

The company, to be called Langford Veterinary Services Ltd., will be formally launched this autumn and will include six units: the small animal, equine and farm animals first opinion practices, the small animal and equine referral hospitals, and its laboratory services department.

It will be run by chief executive Lynne Hill and clinical services director Kobus Engelbrecht who will sit as executive directors on a board appointed by the university.

South African-trained Engelbrecht was formerly a regional director with CVS (UK) Ltd while the RCVS past president arrived in Bristol in February after 10 years in charge of the Royal Veterinary College’s Queen Mother Hospital and subsequently as head of the whole clinical services division.

Mrs Hill says that this new business model will give the fledgling company the freedom to respond quickly to changing circumstances. Like all the UK veterinary schools, Bristol has had problems in competing with the salaries available to skilled clinical staff in private referral practice.

More flexibility

“It is the same all over the world, there are lots of clinical teachers going into private referral centres. We think this new approach gives us more flexibility in employing and retaining staff.

“We will not be tied to the fixed salary scales within the university structure, we will be able to employ people under flexible terms and conditions according to our needs at the particular time, much as they would do in private practice.”

Bristol university has been planning changes in the management of its clinical services for the past four years. It has carried out extensive research on the different management systems used by veterinary schools around the world but has yet to find another institution with similar.

The main reason why the changes have been so long in the planning stage is the complexity of the legal requirements, articles of association, service level agreements and, of course, new contracts for the staff. All the administrative, nursing and support staff will transfer to the new company with their terms and conditions guaranteed under the TUPE [Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 2006. Meanwhile, initially at least, the clinical teaching staff will remain as employees of the university.

The university will also maintain its ownership of all the premises and equipment used by LVS Ltd. In this respect, the new company is again operating less like a traditional university practice and more like the new corporate practices, which are less keen on tying up capital in bricks and mortar.

Educational function

In one respect, though, the new business can never attempt to be like a private business – it has to maintain its educational function.

So the contracts signed between the university and the new company have to take account of the fact that clinical year students take longer over cases and use more materials than their experienced colleagues out in practice, Mrs Hill points out.

But what effect will the changes have on current and future students? “None. It shouldn’t make a big difference to them at all. The only thing that we hope will change will be the amount of clinical material available. The idea is that there should be a lot more cases coming through,” she states.

Nor will the changes make much difference to the school’s network of foster practices where students visit for their weeks of extra mural studies during vacations. In some respects it may encourage even closer relationships, as one of the advantages of the new arrangements is that it will allow the company to take a stake in, or develop joint ventures with, practices far away from the Langford campus.

Langford is well positioned to develop a greater throughput of both first opinion and referral cases in all major species. It is close to the motorway network and with good access to major population centres in the south west, south Wales, the Midlands and M4 corridor.

Less competition

Equally important, there is less competition from other major providers than she faced in her previous post at the RVC, where Cambridge University, the Animal Health Trust and a number of large private referral centres were all within easy reach.

Mrs Hill is justifiably proud of the changes that occurred during her decade at the RVC’s small animal hospital. She maintains that the clinical units at the London school are now run much more efficiently and provide a better service to clients than they did in the 1990s.

“There has been a lot of investment in the clinical facilities and the Queen Mother Hospital, for example, has grown considerably in size. But the nature of the business has also changed, now they work 24/7 which was not the case when I first arrived. I remember that the Beaumont hospital in Camden wasn’t open at weekends and did its last operation on Fridays at 4.30pm.”

She was hired by the Bristol veterinary school in the expectation that she will oversee similar improvements in the clinical services that it offers to animal-owning clients and referring practices. Crucially, the university authorities are providing the investment needed to make those changes.

The university was unhappy with the RCVS inspectors’ report last year that was critical of the quality of facilities at the university farm and in the small animal surgery and imaging units.

It maintains that it had already begun to take the necessary steps to remedy those deficiencies.

Although the university farm lies outwith Mrs Hill’s responsibilities, she points out that around £1 million is currently being spent on upgrading the buildings and this had already been agreed at the time of the RCVS visit.

Rebuilding programme

Meanwhile, she will be directly involved in the £12.5 million project to build a new surgical and imaging centre in the area between the existing small animal hospital and referral centre. At the same time, there will be another £3 million spent on a new equine hospital.

“There is a major rebuilding programme across the whole of the university, But a big chunk of that is at the veterinary school, which is a very important part of the university and brings it a lot of kudos.

“Over the next few years we will be spending around £17 million on new facilities and that, I think, makes a very positive statement about our future.”

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