By Alasdair Macnab

It’s surprising how quickly a month goes past and I’m already writing my second column for the Scottish Farmer.

I’ve got this theory that once you’re past 40 you’re over the hill and you just gather speed. It certainly seems that way. My thoughts this month were focused by a letter in a recent SF about the need for migrant vets. Well what about vets? Aren’t they well paid, got a great job, and old vets are greedy. What’s the problem?

It’s an alarming fact that the suicide rate amongst vets is nearly four times the national average; double that of doctors and dentists. Why? Research shows high levels of dissatisfaction, poor pay rates, long hours and stress are the key contributing factors. Many clients also expect new graduates to be as able as a vet with 10 years of experience.

What are the pressures?

The vet may be on your farm or in the surgery attending to your animal but at the back of their mind is the client expecting a phone call back about lab results, that they’re already late for another appointment, reports to be written for insurance claims, an order to be placed for something, what’s to be made for dinner that night, deadlines for professional development, a holiday to book, oh and to speak to another vet to swap a couple of nights on call.

Something goes wrong and the client loses all reason. Those of us with a few road miles behind us can handle that. Take the new graduate. Just started out, probably living on their own struggling with an extremely demanding job, no-one to talk to about issues and problems – professional or personal and trying to deal with matters on their own. The perfect storm for the onset of mental illness.

Two recent surveys demonstrated what is happening. The first reported that 50% of veterinary graduates were no longer working as vets within four years of graduating.

Another found that 25% of vets graduating between 2000 and 2009, wished they had chosen a different career path. Respondents quoted extreme stress in the months after graduation, poor rates of pay and a significant variation in support from their employers.

New vets face challenges with work life balance, out-of-hours work, and many now working part-time to get some quality of life.

In my last column, I referred to challenges in life which change us. Starting out in practice is a big challenge. Graduates need to develop ‘soft’ skills’, such as communicating with clients and staff, very quickly. It is frightening to find you are on your own. It’s suddenly different.

Your decision impacts directly on the animals you are treating and their owners, you keep questioning what you are doing, and negative reactions from clients undermine confidence. Sadly, there are occasions where that challenge is more than the vet can deal with.

Then there is salary. The letter writer, referred to earlier, suggested that ‘licensed practices are held by old vets reluctant to move on’ and ‘vets getting older and greedier’ asking ‘are vets getting too expensive?’

The median reward package for a new graduate vet is about £31,000. This covers salary, CPD training, car allowance and professional subscriptions.

The median package for an experienced vet is about £42,000 with senior partners earning about £50-60,000. Compare this with your local doctor whose median reward package is around £104,000. If you think vet fees are expensive what cost the NHS?

Here lies the rub. The new graduate vet has five years of student loan to pay back, possibly rent for accommodation to find, household bills to pay, may have plans to get married, buy a house, have a family. Given all the above and the high rate of graduate loss then it is not surprising that few vets wish to take on a partnership or set up a practice and all that entails including trying to persuade a bank to lend the capital required on top of a student loan.

Perhaps it is not so much greedy old vets hanging on but more that they cannot find young vets to buy them out. Many practices are selling out to corporate companies some of whom are now selling to private equity companies who will demand an appropriate financial return. Where next with vet fees?

To compound the letter writer’s angst, recruitment of large animal vets is now a significant issue in parts of Scotland.

Some vet practices in Scotland recently have stopped advertising for vets as there were no applicants after weeks of advertising. The further north and west you go the worse it gets. Some practices are now using a rota of locum vets to maintain a service. This issue affects all professions not just vets.

Why do we need migrant vets?

We need vets to carry out routine practice work; public health work and Brexit will increase the need for vet checks on exports and imports. With the current loss rate we cannot find the number of vets to carry out all this work particularly at the salaries being offered.

University entrance qualifications for veterinary medicine mean that it is some of the brightest people in society who are accepted for courses. Vets care passionately about their profession, their role in society and the animals they care for.

Their professional life is constant daily adherence to the highest standards, customer led demand, a requirement for accurate, comprehensive records of all work done as it happens, an annual mandatory requirement for a minimum number of hours of continuous professional development and learning, with the constant nagging worry of what could happen when things go wrong. How many farm and croft businesses work under these pressures and meet these standards of training and knowledge?

We are all under pressure; we don’t all handle it well. Next time you’re upset by a vet, pause for thought – could your reaction contribute to the shortage of vets?