“Worry about being better; bigger will take care of itself” - Veterinary Practice
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“Worry about being better; bigger will take care of itself”

Type “bigger and better” into Google (yes, other search engines are available, but…) and in 0.72 seconds “about 1,810,000,000 results” are available. Bigger for sure – my concise Oxford English Dictionary of Quotations only gave me one quotation and that was for 10 minutes’ worth of searching! I’ll let you know the quote in a minute or two. But better? Taking a second to look at each of those Google results and I’d be looking for nearly six years! The top quote was: “It’s time to move on to bigger and better things.” And to my mind it’s that equating of bigger and better that is one of our big problems today.

In several of the practices I visit in my ambulatory ophthalmology referral service I see graphs on the wall. Graphs that show how many cases the practice saw last month compared with the same period last year. And how much money was made by the practice that month versus that month last year. Obviously coming out of lockdown everything looks rosy. Well, maybe… except that the very fact that the practice, or those controlling it, are using those criteria to define success is, to me, a problem. Now, I’ll let you guess whether those were predominantly independent clinics or ones owned by corporates.

Perhaps I should let you know the identity of the quotation from my little old hard-copy quotation book: “Worry about being better; bigger will take care of itself. Think one customer at a time and take care of each one the best way you can.” That was from Gary Comer, an American entrepreneur and philanthropist born in 1927, who died in 2006.

I never see a graph of the number of thank-you cards or messages the practice receives from grateful owners. Maybe I just don’t look hard enough!

Interesting to think about that word, “philanthropy”: lover of humanity, or people. Someone looking to get the best for the people around them. St Paul said that the love of money was the root of all evil. Not money itself – that can be a great benefit if used appropriately – but the love of money. Putting love of money before the love of people… and I guess their animals! I never see a graph of the number of thank-you cards or messages the practice receives from grateful owners. Maybe I just don’t look hard enough!

Today is a Sunday, and I spent some of the afternoon with an owner whose dog has had glaucoma and requires continual eyedrops. They needed an evaluation of the intraocular pressure which took me a few minutes. What did I want for payment? Actually, just seeing that the pressure was well controlled was recompense enough for half an hour of my time this afternoon. I told them to give a donation to the vet school’s fundraising appeal.

The owner talked about what they remembered of veterinary practice 40 years ago, when calling out their own vet at night in an emergency was no more than if they had been seen during the day in the practice. I’m not sure whether they were looking back with rose-tinted spectacles, but nowadays of course an out-of-hours trip to the emergency vet with their cat set them back a couple of hundred pounds (or more) for a 10-minute consultation, to be told that their pet had a muscle sprain and nothing need be done. The owners were happy to have that good news, as they were from me today, but they wondered quite what had happened to veterinary practice that seemed to have made it bigger but not necessarily better.

Surely veterinary medicine is a vocation, not a job, and the new students… are coming into the profession for the love of animals

The emergency clinic obviously has to charge for its heating (or air conditioning this summer) and lighting, together with the salaries of the staff through the night, and in all probability has to give a reasonable amount of money back to the venture capitalist who invested in the practice in the first place. And they, the venture capitalist, didn’t promise that their prime concern would be the welfare of the animals under their care as we vets did, but rather the welfare of the shareholders who had invested their money in the first place. Not that this is a love of money, and not evil for sure, providing 24-hour care for animals – but perhaps an over concern for a profit margin that can mean that if people can’t afford the prices, then euthanasia is the only option.

I’ve seen it all too often in my travels around and feel that this can’t be the right way forward, can it? Surely veterinary medicine is a vocation, not a job, and the new students who will be joining us at the vet school by the time you are reading this are coming into the profession for the love of animals, or so most of them say at interview!

Google was faster with “profession” than with “bigger and better” – 510,000,000 hits in only 0.52 seconds! But its first link was to “a paid occupation, especially one that involves prolonged training and a formal qualification”. My old Oxford Concise Dictionary has “a vocation centred around professed knowledge, expertise, skill and judgement”, and I have to say, I much prefer that!

David Williams

Fellow and Director of Studies at St John's College, University of Cambridge

David Williams, MA, VetMB, PhD, CertVOphthal, CertWEL, FHEA, FRCVS, graduated from Cambridge in 1988 and has worked in veterinary ophthalmology at the Animal Health Trust. He gained his Certificate in Veterinary Ophthalmology before undertaking a PhD at the RVC. David now teaches at the vet school in Cambridge.

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