The vet profession has changed in thirty years

By Pete Wedderburn - Animal Doctor

The vet profession has changed in Pete's time as a vet
The vet profession has changed in Pete's time as a vet

My Facebook stream has recently been populated by a seasonal trend: photos of proud parents with their children as newly graduated university students. Ireland is being infused with waves of freshly qualified engineers, scientists, teachers and a whole raft of other skilled and trained professionals.

Thirty two years ago, I was a new graduate myself, attending a ceremony wearing a gown and sash, accepting my degree after five years of hard study. It's hard to believe that so many years have passed, but I can't deny it. I am now an older member of my profession.

It's interesting to reflect on how the veterinary profession has changed over that period.

The biggest and most obvious trend has been the growth of the so-called "companion animal sector". When I qualified, if you wanted to specialise in just pets as a vet, you had to be based in the bigger towns and cities, with populations of 30000 or more (i.e. around ten locations around Ireland). Pet-only vets are now far more widespread, with dedicated companion animal vets in most Irish towns with a population of over 10000 (that means over fifty towns).

Even in urban areas, vets are now doing more pet-only work than they used to. I remember when I moved to Ireland in 1991, I went to a meeting of of around thirty pet vets in Dublin. Somebody said to the group; "Raise your hand if you do meat inspection". I expected that perhaps two or three vets would put their hand up: perhaps they might do a few shifts on times of the week when their own clinic was quiet. To my astonishment, over half of the vets in the room did meat inspection as well as treating dogs and cats. In those days, there just wasn't enough work as a pet vet to be able to earn a full time living. It's different now: first, small, local abattoirs have been replaced by fewer, bigger meat factories, so there are less opportunities for part time work for vets. And secondly, more people keep pets. Thankfully there is enough work to allow pet vets to focus on doing nothing but companion animal work to earn their keep.

This increase in pet ownership stems from a significant change in Irish families. People seem to have made a decision to have fewer children and more pets. Thirty years ago, a married couple might have five or six children; these days, they'd be more likely to have two or three children plus a couple of pets. It's as if pets now fill the emotional niche that used to be occupied by extra children. And more vets are needed to look after the health needs of those pets.

The second big transformation in the veterinary world, just as in the rest of the modern world, has been the advance of technology. This has affected many parts of vets' daily work.

Thirty years ago, pets' medical records were usually kept on a hand-written 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. Once in a while, a card would be misfiled and it was almost impossible to find the record when the pet arrived for a revisit. Furthermore, the job spec of a vet included being able to interpret the handwriting of 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 in a vet clinic might be an x-ray machine, with the resulting x-ray films being processed in a dark room using complicated and messy chemical solutions. These days, the x-ray machine is still a daily part of our work, but rapid digital processing, using computerised equipment, has replaced the dark room.

There's a raft of other types of new technology, including ultrasound machines, in-house laboratories, 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 to 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 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 hugely improved vets' access to up-to-date 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.

The vet profession has been affected by many other changes over thirty years, with more and more female vets, dedicated emergency clinics for after-hours work, compulsory ongoing education for vets, and the start of a trend towards vets being in groups, like opticians and pharmacies.

Yet at it's heart, the job of a vet remainsthe same: helping animals that are unwell. And thankfully, I am still as enthralled with doing this as I was when I was a new graduate, way back in 1985.

Wexford People

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