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How has the veterinary profession changed over thirty years?

Old Clock and newspaper

Pete the Vet General

At this time of year, newly graduated vets emerge from the universities, brimming full of information and hungry to start on the practicalities of their long held dream to work in our profession. It doesn’t seem so long since I was in that position, but the reality is that I qualified as a vet in 1985: thirty-two years have passed.

The job of a companion animal vet has remained similar in many ways (seeing pets in consult rooms, working up cases, giving medical and surgical treatment). Yet despite this unchanging core aspect of a vet’s job, there have been many changes over the past three decades.

Growth of companion animal work

The biggest and most obvious trend has been the overall growth of the so-called “companion animal sector”. This has been driven by many factors, including the increased humanisation of pets (they are now “boys and girls”, and their owners are happy to call themselves “pet parents”). The financial turnover of companion animal veterinary care has been boosted by expectations that a higher level of investigative diagnostic work will be done (from ultrasound to MRI scans and more). The widespread uptake of pet insurance has helped to fund these higher costs. The net result of the growth in this sector is that there are far more jobs in small animal practice, and many vets now set out to make this a career from the start. Thirty years ago, most of my classmates sought out mixed practice as their starting point in their career; it was only later that they specialised in their chosen area of work. These days it seems far more common for new graduates to move straight to companion animal work from the day they graduate. They are clear from the start that they don’t want to do any farm animal or equine work.

Increasing specialisation of vets with the advent of referral clinics

Ten years after I’d qualified as a vet, I did extra studies, achieving my Certificate in Veterinary Radiology from the RCVS. I was unusual in my generation: few of my classmates undertook extra qualifications of this type, and even fewer went on to become recognised veterinary specialists. These days, it’s become common for vets to do basic extra qualifications like my CertVR (although the names and focus of the available qualifications have changed), and for many young vets, their chosen career path is to become an independent specialist, working in a referral centre.  The number of referral clinics has grown exponentially over the past thirty years, reflecting both the demand for a high level of care for pets as well as the desire of vets to work in their own specific niche.

Increased Continuing Professional Development

When I qualified as a vet, it was up to the individual as to whether they chose to go on courses or to conferences. These days, the RCVS Code of Professional Conduct states that all vets are obliged to maintain and continue to develop their professional knowledge and skills. CPD has become mandatory. Vets now need to undertake a minimum of 105 hours of CPD in any three-year period with an average of 35 hours per year.

Changed gender balance in the veterinary professional

The proportion of female new graduates has gone from 11% in 1970 to 80% in 2013 in the United States, and a similar trend over the same time period has been seen in the UK. There are several theories for this change (are women more attracted to caring professions?) but there are probably many factors involved. The new gender balance may be responsible for numerous changes in work practices in the profession, including more part time jobs and less interest in the permanent commitment of practice ownership (and the consequent increase in corporate veterinary practice ownership).

Improved status for veterinary nursing

Veterinary nursing has progressed as a profession in the past thirty years, with many notable landmarks, including the RCVS Veterinary nurse register, and a veterinary nurse professional code of conduct. Veterinary nurses are now authorised to carry out many types of interventions that were vet-only thirty years ago, making the daily job of a nurse more interesting and autonomous. Veterinary nurses can now own and run their own veterinary practices, a natural and sensible development that would have been unimaginable thirty years ago.

Advances in technology

New technology has affected many parts of vets’ daily work.

Thirty years ago, pets’ medical records were usually kept on a hand-writing card system, filed in metal cabinets that were kept at the reception desk. When a pet arrived, their record would be retrieved, written up, then replaced. Occasionally, a card would be misfiled and it was almost impossible to find the record when the pet arrived for a revisit. The job spec of a vet included being able to interpret the hand writing of the other vets in the practice. These problems are in the past: most vets now are fully computerised, making it easy to find a pet’s records, and removing the complication of illegible handwritten notes.

Diagnostic work has also been transformed by technology. Thirty years ago, the only equipment at a typical vet clinic might be a basic biochemistry analyser and an x-ray machine. X-ray processing was done with films and wet chemicals in a dark room.

These days, many vet clinics have advanced laboratory equipment, and while the x-ray machine is still a daily part of our work, but digital processing has replaced the dark room. And there’s a raft of other types of new technology, including ultrasound machines, electronic pumps for giving intravenous fluids, computerised monitors to make anaesthesia safer, fibre-optic endoscopes to investigate hard-to-reach parts of the body, and high-tech stethoscopes that create digital recordings of heart beats. Some veterinary centres even have MRI and CAT scanners to carry out state-of-the-art imaging investigations of sick pets.

The arrival of the internet

The internet has brought many changes too: thirty years ago, the only alternative to snail-mail was the fax machine, and many vets didn’t even have these. Email has made communications instantaneous: there’s no longer a delay waiting for laboratory results or reports from specialists. Furthermore, the world wide web has massively improved vets’ access to information. Any topic of animal health and disease can easily be researched online: there’s no need for a large, expensive library of books in every clinic.

Dedicated emergency clinics for after-hours work

Thirty years ago, on-call work was the bane of every vet’s life. It was part of the deal, but few vets enjoyed it, and it was widely regarded as one of the main causes of stress in vets’ lives. While these statements are still true for vets in farm and equine work, for many small animal practitioners, the phenomenon of after-hours clinics has freed up many from this burden.

What else has changed?

I have no doubt that there have many other changes in our profession in the past thirty years. If you’ve been qualified for this length of time, what other changes have you noticed?  

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