IT is not often that a life-long academic can make a success of business in the real world, but Professor Dick White is the exception who proves the rule.
After 27 years at Cambridge University, increasingly disillusioned with the academic life, in 2003 this soft tissue surgeon and oncologist broke away and set up his own private referral centre.
He found ideal premises in a set of farm buildings in idyllic surroundings six miles from Newmarket. Initially just himself, his wife Christine and a single VN, he had rather intended to remain a one- or possibly two-man private surgical practice. Such was his popularity, however, that the practice has grown rapidly.
Five years after opening, there are 12 consultants in nine disciplines. The practice occupies around three times its original footprint and major building work is under way that will more than double that.
Dick’s academic background does show in the way that he feels it is important that the practice is active in education and research as well as in high-quality clinical work. The premises include a 45-seat lecture theatre where meetings are held for both vets and nurses.
The programme of residencies and internships is well-respected and in a year’s time the practice will be taking students from Nottingham University on their small animal rotations. Only four students will be taken at one time, each in a different department, so they will get an extremely high-quality experience. Dick holds a professorship at Nottingham and each of the other consultants has an academic appointment.
Another aspect of Dick’s academic background is that, he says, he learned a lot at the university about how not to manage a business! At a fairly early stage he set up a management board for his practice which, as well as himself, his wife and the senior clinical staff, includes a chairman who is a retired City businessman and a finance director who is an accountant.
I spoke to Giunio Bruto Cherubini, European and RCVS recognised specialist in veterinary neurology, who joined the practice in January 2007 after five years at the RVC. He developed the neurology service from scratch, yet already is recruiting a second neurologist, and this is an area where neurologists are thick on the ground with Cambridge University and the AHT within a stone’s-throw, and the RVC and Davies Veterinary Specialists within an hour’s drive.
I asked him why he had joined the practice, and he said that here he felt able to give compassionate clinical care in an environment where profit was not the primary motivator. He added that Dick’s personal reputation reassured him that this was a practice where the animal would always be put first – a huge compliment, I thought.
Training future specialists
Giunio maintains his academic interest as a special lecturer in veterinary neurology at Nottingham (since 2007) and is involved in the postgraduate education of future specialists through the Dick White Residency and Internship programme.
Rob Foale, specialist in small animal internal medicine, heads the internal medicine service. He joined the practice in December 2003, fresh from a residency at Cambridge University.
Rob said that he finds private practice more satisfying than a university as he has a greater clinical caseload and more autonomy, but the caseload does also mean that the job is far more mentally tiring and he is looking for a third team member to share the expanding internal medicine caseload.
He too was very complimentary about Dick White’s reputation, saying that being accepted to work with him was a “huge seal of approval”, adding that the practice had a great team and he loved working with them.
Living on site
The whole ethos of the practice focuses on providing the best possible care to patients, clients and referring practices. Dick lives on site and takes all phone calls himself at night, always happy to see cases immediately.
What better words could a worried practitioner hear at 3am than “Don’t worry, bring it in, I’ll take care of it”!
I had the opportunity to speak to a couple of local practitioners, who said that they were always happy to refer cases to Dick’s practice, knowing that the animals would be in good hands and that communication would be excellent.
The client-centred approach extends to the website (www.dickwhitereferrals.com), which describes the practice facilities in terms that clients appreciate and which emphasises the staff members’ credentials as human beings and animal lovers as well as their academic qualifications and specialisms.
There are even pages listing local hotels for clients who travel long distances and tourist attractions where they can spend a pleasant day while waiting for their pet to be treated.
Dick says that he feels “very fortunate to have the opportunity for a second career”, and the future of the practice seems secure