Worldwide medical and scientific journal for animal health professionals

Issue number 2 Marketing & Sales

Being a good vet (Part 1)

Published 28/04/2021

Written by Philippe Baralon , Antje Blättner , Pere Mercader and Mark Moran

Also available in Français , Deutsch and Español

“If your only tool is a hammer, all problems resemble a nail”. This section will stress the different factors required to make you a “good clinician” and gain confidence in your medical decisions.

Being a good vet

Key points

The veterinary degree is a passport to many different employment opportunities; if you’re not sure which job will suit you, don’t be afraid to try something and, if it doesn’t work out, move on.


Various methods exist that can help you quickly gain in confidence and assist in making appropriate medical decisions.


Introduction

As a vet, you have the choice of various professional pathways upon which to embark. This choice should be made with prudence, because the areas of activity in veterinary medicine today are often very specialised, and making a transition from one field to another, whilst not totally impossible, is at least not desirable. A change from one veterinary field to another such as from a small animal practice to a large animal practice implies a loss of acquired knowledge and some element of “starting again”. Before making the decision as to which field of veterinary practice you want to work in, take time to:

  • Think about your goals – where do you see yourself in five and in ten years? What changes are coming up in your preferred sphere of the veterinary profession? How will these changes influence you and your daily work?

  • Get some insights and experience in the areas you favour, for example, by volunteering in this field, in order to help you make an educated decision regarding your future professional career. This way, you can get valuable information that you definitely can´t get by reading and can only come from first-hand experience!

    Having said that you cannot get all the facts by just reading, you can still gain some good advice, and this chapter offers some practical steps to help you make the best possible start to your career as a veterinary surgeon.

Choose which field you wish to practice in

The first general decision to make is whether you want to work with small animals like cats and dogs or with large animals such as cattle and horses. If you are unsure where your future lies, here are some key factors to consider (Box 1).
 
Box 1
Practical tips when considering your choices
  •  As a novice you don´t know where you fit
  • Get insights – the more the better
  • Try everything – you can´t lose
  • If you are undecided – move on
  • Base your decisions on your own experiences

 

Think about the animals you will work with

Small animal medicine means providing solutions and services for pets living in a family, and that are playing the role of a companion or even the role of a child or life partner. Large animal practice is a very different kind of experience in which the vet is more of a livestock health manager for cattle or pigs, or as a doctor and coach for sports companions such as horses (Figure 1). 

Vets that try to cover all of these fields of the profession today are a somewhat endangered species, not least because they generally suffer from stress trying to constantly keep up with the veterinary specialists that exist in each of these areas.

 
Figure 1. Large animal practice requires a very different kind of expertise in which the vet is more of a livestock health manager for cattle or pigs. © Shutterstock

Think about the environment you will work in

If you choose to embark on large animal practice, you have to keep in mind that you will be working outdoors in every kind of weather, at every time of the day and night, often travelling large distances daily and mostly being on your own. Another important dimension is that the legal regulations for the treatment of food production animals in most countries are getting more and more complex and increasingly influence the way the vets work. Typically, this increases the time spent on organisation and administrative tasks; something that could have a significant impact on job satisfaction and career progression.

In small animal practice, it is more common to work in a team consisting of vets and support staff such as nurses or receptionists. Small animals are brought into your facilities so that you can more easily control your working hours and environment, although there can be emergencies and house calls and, in some countries, mobile vet practices are becoming more and more popular. As with large animals, treating companion animals away from the clinic can be much more complicated when it comes to handling the pet, and is always limited from a diagnostic point of view. These are factors you should consider before deciding to be a mobile vet.

Think about the mindset of the owners you will meet

Another important issue when it comes to your choice of veterinary profession is to take account of the owner´s mindset, because this is something that you will have to deal with on a daily basis. The owner´s attitude towards their animal varies greatly between small and large animal medicine. Livestock owners make their living from breeding and/or keeping animals for dairy and meat production, whereas pets (with the exception of watchdogs and other companion animals that are used for commercial purposes) are mainly kept as a family member. These totally different aspects of animal husbandry lead to very different demands from your clients. In the role of the large animal doctor, you are mainly confronted with managing herds and so when considering the options for of a single animal it is very often a decision of life or death because a sophisticated treatment is likely to be uneconomic.

Even if pet owners are appearing more and more price-conscious, most decisions regarding diagnostics and treatment in small animal practice are not based on price alone – this business is much more emotional! Dealing with emotions and the often unrealistic expectations of owners is therefore a large part of small animal medicine; something that not all vets are prepared to deal with day after day.

General practice or specialist?

A new value system has been gaining ground, initially in universities and subsequently among the younger generation of vets, that places “specialists” at the top of the professional hierarchy, well above “simple” general practitioners. It is important to understand that these are two very different occupations, and that the most important thing is to choose the option that corresponds most closely to your own personal and professional aspirations.
 
General practitioners focus on preventative medicine, including screening, as well as primary medical and surgical care which can be carried out in good conditions in the large majority of veterinary practices and clinics. General practice therefore includes all disciplines of veterinary medicine and requires broad competence and a “multidirectional” focus to continued professional development. Clients who attend a general practice are owners of animals who are putting their trust in the practitioner.
 
Specialists practice in a single discipline, within which they carry out medical and/or surgical acts that require a particular skill and/or technical expertise and/or a team, and, as such, are available in just a small number of clinics or hospitals. Specialised services require an in-depth knowledge of a single disciplinary field and have, therefore, very focused continuing professional development.
 
The two occupations cannot be compared in terms of technical or scientific skills, as specialists are expected to be more competent in one specific area but as a result are often much less skilled in all other areas.
 

 

Mark Moran

Specialised services require an in-depth knowledge of a single disciplinary field and have, therefore, very focused continuing professional development.

Mark Moran

There are also clear differences in the interpersonal relationship requirements:

  • General practitioners mainly interact with owners and it is their mastery of communication that will allow their technical competence to be effective, by ensuring the owner has an appropriate understanding of their animal’s condition, thus encouraging treatment compliance.

  • Specialists communicate primarily with the general practitioner who referred the case to them, though this doesn’t always make it an easier task (Figure 2). They will probably also have to interact with the animal owner, although this can vary significantly from one specialist to another.
 
Figure 2. If you choose to be a specialist and have good communication skills, you can become a speaker at veterinary congresses. © Matej Kastelic

The greatest differences between the two occupations are revealed through career progression, particularly at the start of the career pathway.

  • General practitioners are expected to be able to work as soon as they obtain their veterinary degree, and can start in a practice immediately. Obviously, this does not mean that they have all the skills they need, and their technical training should continue intensively during the first few years of their professional lives. For the rest of their career, general practitioners must follow a particularly difficult path of continuous professional development, as it must include a wide variety of disciplinary fields. While general practitioners must have appropriately high levels of technical competence and continue to maintain these for the duration of their career, any future career progression will depend on their other skills, including interpersonal, business and general managerial skills such as joining and assimilating into a group, leading colleagues, etc. Furthermore, in order to progress professionally general practitioners will have to acquire more advanced know-how in management and administration in order to take responsibility for an activity or facility within the organisation that employs them. Finally, general practitioners who become partners in an existing practice or who go on to create or buy their own practice will have to be capable of managing an entire business.

  • Vets who want to become specialists usually follow an internationally recognized course of study, extending their knowledge with a medical internship, followed by a period of “apprenticeship” in a residency with a qualified specialist before taking their specialist examination (more details at http://ebvs.eu/colleges). This increases the initial training programme by another four to five years. Subsequently, the first part of their professional career will follow an essentially technical and scientific path. Nevertheless, interpersonal, business and managerial skills should not be neglected. Their remaining career progression will either be entirely technical and scientific, for example, taking several roles in several different hospitals, or, more rarely, it may include a managerial and administrative element, as they become practice partners. New start-ups and buyouts are rarer for specialists because of the costs involved.

The career progression options defined above have differing financial consequences: Specialists earn far less than general practitioners during the early part of their careers, although the generalist’s working conditions are harder. Subsequently, the differences are less pronounced and depend more on workplace structures. Particularly brilliant veterinary specialists often earn more, but some general practitioners can also achieve high salaries, particularly if they take on additional responsibility or set up their own practice.

In the end, the differences between the two occupations serve to highlight that the choice between them should not be based on any cultural value system or a “romantic” vision of either role, but that it should, where possible, be an informed decision based on personal aspirations and skills.

Getting clinical experience

As a freshly graduated vet or as a vet changing the area of their professional career, it is very important to acquire clinical experience in “real-life” practice, no matter how extensive and sophisticated your education in veterinary medicine at university has been (Figure 3). It is also a great opportunity to get a first-hand look at the reality of working life and to confirm that the choice you have made really suits you. Getting clinical experience in the field is often the first step into the career you have planned. Sometimes it is a requirement for certain job offers and it is always a great asset and advantage when applying for your first real employment. Being proactive, searching for and grasping opportunities also shows any future employer that you have initiative, drive and the right mindset for the daily challenges of being a vet. Also, volunteers are often offered a job after having worked with a team for some time and displayed a good performance and attitude.
 
Figure 3. Getting clinical experience in the field is often the first step into the career you have planned. © Shutterstock

Look for options

Clinical experience is often acquired via volunteer work or internship, although sometimes you may have the opportunity of a paid job in which you can gather experience without having to take on responsibility, at least initially. Before you apply for volunteer work, you should be clear as to the field in which you want to concentrate your future professional career. For example, if you want to work as a small animal general practitioner, you should look for options in this specific field. Use the Internet and other sources to research opportunities that may be reasonably near your home. If, however, your goal is to be a small animal orthopaedic surgeon or a heart specialist, then you might have to travel a little further to be able to volunteer in a specialized clinic. Either way, it is always a good idea to start “at the bottom”, aiming to first gather experience in general practice, and then to move on to specialisations.
 

Philippe Baralon

Being proactive, searching for and grasping opportunities also shows any future employer that you have initiative, drive and the right mindset for the daily challenges of being a vet.

Philippe Baralon

Be proactive

When you have identified some locations where you want to apply for volunteer work, you will then need to prepare an application setting out your credentials, academic achievements and including a current professional-looking picture of yourself. Also, think about how long you want your “apprenticeship” to be, a minimum of three months is advisable.The next step is to contact the facilities in question to make an appointment for a personal interview with a responsible staff member or the owner of the practice. You should try to personally present yourself when seeking a volunteer post, and only post or email your application where there is no alternative.
 

Check your choice

It is always a good idea to check out several options if possible, because then you can compare the offers! Here are some important points you should raise during your interview:

  • Does the facility have experience of, or even a plan for, educating volunteers?
  • What would the boss/the team expect of you? For example, are you allowed to take on simple tasks that match your abilities?
  • What will your working hours be? Are you expected to be present or cover the emergency hours?
  • Will there be a salary and/or reimbursement for travel costs?
  • What is the minimum and maximum duration of a volunteer’s stay at the clinic?

Try to be relaxed and feel free to also ask any other questions that are important to you. There are no stupid questions; remember, you are a beginner! Take notes during the interview and end the meeting with an agreement as to how and when you will be told if you are going to be accepted as a volunteer, unless you are both so impressed that you agree to start work immediately! Never leave a clinic not knowing how your application is going to proceed! Afterwards, take some time to review your notes and the feelings you had during your meetings so that if you are fortunate enough to get an offer, you can reflect if you felt welcome as a colleague and whether it is somewhere you can gather valuable experience with someone that is willing to let you look over their shoulder. You should try to keep away from people and clinics that give the impression that you will be merely tolerated as a free staff member. Generally, they are not worth your time, even if you are slightly desperate to get the job, because there are always better options coming up!

Gaining confidence to make your own medical decisions

All beginnings are difficult, especially if you are working in a profession that demands many decisions on a daily basis – decisions that sometimes may have far-reaching consequences. Feeling the weight of responsibility of an animal´s health and well-being on your shoulders, often combined with the demanding behaviour of the owner, is challenging, especially if you don’t have a lot of professional experience. Luckily, you can influence the process of gaining the confidence to make medical decisions!


Get a good mentor!

Hopefully, you will be working in an environment where you have an appointed mentor that takes you under their wing to help you to take those first steps as a working vet. Having a mentor that trains and guides you is a very good start to your professional career, so you should ask about this during your first job interview. If you have started already and don´t have someone experienced assigned to be your coach, then try to find one amongst your team! If you discover that the people you work with don´t really care that you need help and guidance, then you should honestly think about a switch to another job. Absence of guidance and assistance during this crucial part of your professional life may lead to a permanently low self-esteem when it comes to making medical decisions.
 
Once you have a “medical coach”, you should keep in close contact and schedule frequent and regular meetings with them until you feel more confident working on your own. Help your coach to teach you by giving feedback on how their advice will reach you best (spoken, written, supervised experience) and tell them honestly where your strengths and weaknesses are.
 

Learn from your mistakes

When learning something new, you should always take into account that mistakes will happen – no matter how well educated and dutiful you are – and that they are a great opportunity to learn if you handle them professionally. Be honest with yourself and admit mistakes so you can investigate them thoroughly. Look into the incidents that led you to making a wrong or suboptimal decision together with your coach. Analyse medical cases step-by-step to help you to revise your diagnostics and decisions and discuss them with your supervisor or with an experienced vet whom you trust. Try to identify any circumstances besides being inexperienced that led you to make your initial decision. Perhaps you were distracted, under stress or even unwell, because these external factors once identified, can be eliminated quite effectively.
 
Remember too that there are some factors beyond your control, which you can´t influence. Factors such as the animal´s internal status, factors that you can´t detect even if you performed a diagnostic routine with equipment you have at your disposal. In the medical profession, there is always the risk of undetected health issues that can badly influence the outcome of even the most sophisticated diagnostics and treatments performed by the most experienced and skilful doctors – these outcomes are not mistakes, just facts of medical life!


Learn to walk alone

Once you have gained confidence in making medical decisions on your own, it´s time to reduce the frequency of the meetings with your coach and to gradually decrease the amount of guidance that you get from them. Until you are totally self-confident when it comes to handling medical cases on your own, you should still get feedback from experienced vets on a regular basis. Learning to walk alone is very important to prevent you from ending up being over-dependent on other colleagues throughout your professional career. Getting and giving feedback in a medical team means making decisions on your own and then discussing them with your colleagues. This helps to ensure that you haven´t missed something, enhances team communication and in addition, should help you to feel appreciated for your work. Continual feedback is something that you should maintain as an important routine throughout your professional life.


Build a network

Even if you have gained confidence and are able to make medical decisions on your own and to take full responsibility for your cases, it´s a good idea to establish your own network of professionals as a kind of support group. Find a mix of people whom you trust, who have a similar level of education as you and who have knowledge in different fields of the veterinary profession so that you can exchange ideas and support each other (Figure 4). Such a network can be very important when handling difficult cases, but can also help in everyday vet-life. Even if you are very confident from a medical point of view, there are often cases where we are uncertain, and it´s helpful to discuss these with colleagues to get a second opinion and feedback.


Figure 4. It is a good idea to establish your own network of professionals as a kind of support group. © Shutterstock

Having a professional network is also helpful when managing the “human incidents” that come with the veterinary profession: your team and your clients. There are always some incidents that occur that can be funny and nice to share, but from time to time there can also be difficult situations that make your professional life really tough. This could be your first euthanasia of a dog belonging to an elderly person who is living alone or a big row with a client about your fees or the treatment of their pet. Discussing these events with somebody from “outside” can be very helpful because they are professionally distanced from the incident. As such, they can help us to review our own behaviour and to provide input and tips for handling such cases when they occur the next time.

A professional network also contributes to a healthy work-life balance because getting feedback from your fellow professionals means dealing with medical cases or human issues inside your profession rather than taking these things home. Discussing cases with your family and friends prevents us from making the separation between our work and our private life. If some people in your professional network are also friends, then it should be part of the network-concept to discuss work at work and not at home, and “shop-talk” during gatherings with friends and family should be a tightly restricted exception.

 
Philippe Baralon

Philippe Baralon

Dr. Baralon graduated from the École Nationale Vétérinaire of Toulouse, France in 1984 and went on to study Economics (Master of Economics, Toulouse, 1985) Read more

Antje Blättner

Antje Blättner

Dr. Blättner studied in Berlin and Munich and after graduating in 1988 she set up and ran her own small animal practice. Read more

Pere Mercader

Pere Mercader

Dr. Mercader established himself as a practice management consultant to veterinary clinics in 2001 and since then has developed this role in Spain, Portugal Read more

Mark Moran

Mark Moran

Mark Moran has been a consultant to the veterinary profession for the last 19 years, providing business mentoring and support for veterinary clinic owners and key staff. Read more

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