The worst thing about moving house is having to find a new veterinary practice for my girls, and Pan. I can still visit my friends and they can come up to see me. I’ve not lost them. But I have lost my old vets.
No new client registrations
I’ve written before about my anxiety around attending a new practice. But when I last changed practices the situation was very different to the one in which I now find myself. A major difference is that previously I had my choice of practices. I could go anywhere I wanted and they would welcome me and my critters. But no so now. Finding a practice that is actually accepting new patients is extremely difficult.
Why is the happening? While I can only write about the areas in which I’ve had direct experience, my understanding is that it’s the same all over the UK. The first issue is the dreaded Brexit. Before Brexit many locum vets came from the EU. But due to factors such as increased paperwork, uncertainty around ever changing rules and concerns about whether or not they would actually be welcomed in the UK, has caused a huge drop in numbers. According to a private briefing for ministers a few months ago, the number of EU vets coming here had dropped to as few as 20 per month, down from 80-100 (source) This is compounded by EU vets leaving UK practices, resulting in severe staff shortages.
It’s not just EU vets who are leaving. Many UK veterinary surgeons are leaving the profession. Far from being the cuddly ‘you get to play with animals all day’ image often portrayed, it has long been recognised that this is a hard job. Mental and physical stress makes an already exacting job doubly difficult. But when you add staff shortages to the equation, an already precarious situation can become untenable. What was once seen as an exciting, challenging and valued calling is now a relentless slog. Issues with pay, support and well-being are damaging the profession and the service offered.
Due to the huge shortages vets, and vet nurses, are now being asked to work longer and longer hours. Newly qualified vets have been described as ‘lambs to the slaughter’ as they are thrown in at the deep end. It’s no wonder many are leaving. More university places are needed in order to increase the numbers of vets qualifying to practice. More overseas vets must be welcomed back to our shores. And more support must be provided for those souls who are sticking with the profession and battling through.
It would be remiss of me not to mention COVID. This has obviously impacted practices. With a backlog of procedures from lockdowns and staff having to stay at home to self isolate, practice staff are running to keep up.
And then there are the shortages of medicines. While waiting for my appointment yesterday I heard the receptionist explain to clients that there is a shortage of vaccines. When I asked the vet about this she confirmed that numerous products were in short supply making her job even harder.
What about the clients?
I have great regard and respect for vets. I have worked in a professional capacity with a great many over the last three decades. And have cared for all my dogs with the help, support and expertise of numerous practices wherever I’ve lived. Having looked at some of the effect a shortage of vets has on the profession, what about the effect it has on clients?
As you’ll know if you’re a regular reader, I’ve just moved house. While I was between homes and staying with family, Ettie needed urgent veterinary treatment. It took numerous calls to various local practices before I found one who would help us. Having now moved to my new home, the situation occurred again. Ettie has a suspected allergy (to what I don’t yet know) that causes her skin to erupt in to puss filled spots. The reaction begins with angry hives which if left untreated rapidly turns into nasty pustules. On Saturday her skin went from being really good to a large covering of infected spots overnight.
No, no, no
But could I get a vet in my new locale (or the old) to see her? The answer is no. The refusals went from ‘we can’t make an appointment to see her until we have her full medical history from her previous vets’ to an uncaring ‘No’ to an exasperated ‘if you can send some photos over I can ask the vet to have a look’.
Let’s take each in turn. The first is what I’d call a jobsworth’s response. Absolutely get previous records. But to deny seeing her without them when I could give the medical history, and even take along the bottle for her previous prescription was awful. The voice of the uncaring no showed zero understanding or compassion for my little Ettie. Basically it wasn’t her problem so I should go away (this was the same reaction I’d had from multiple other practices when the issue first occurred) And yes, I did send in photos of Ettie’s skin along with her history. But no, nobody called or emailed back.
Come Monday, Ettie’s condition had worsened considerably. Her whole body, including legs, armpits, groin, stomach had even more pustules, all bigger and angrier than before. She was miserable. This time I called my ‘temp’ vet and was again asked if I could send in photos. I agreed providing the receptionist stayed on the line while I did so. Photos duly sent, she looked at them and said she’d show the to the vet immediately, could I hold the line? Within minutes she was back telling me that the vet wanted to see Ettie right away.
Much of my frustration comes from the attitude of the gatekeepers. At my current practice, the twice I’ve been able to get an appointment, I was helped by a wonderful receptionist. I don’t say this just because she gave me the appointment, but because she actually seemed to care about Ettie. She expressed concern and sadness at Ettie’s condition. She wanted to help and did all she could to allay my fears and take action to help me. But in my experience, she is in the minority.
Like many people, when I am afraid I’m not always as considered or polite as I am when not in distress. Knowing that my animal needs help that I cannot provide is truly awful. I knew what could happen to Ettie if she wasn’t seen on Saturday (and was sadly proved right) But could I persuade anyone that I knew what I was talking about? No. The presumption seems to be that all members of the public are numpties.
Ettie’s condition wasn’t life threatening but it certainly was urgent. However, for these gatekeepers there was no grey area between routine and life threatening. And how was I able to tell what was urgent or not, I wasn’t a veterinary professional. Well news flash, neither were they! Working on reception no sooner made these people veterinary professionals than it made me a printer when I worked on reception at a printing company many years ago. All front facing work with the public is challenging. And I understand that people can be vile and abusive.
But when people are afraid, gatekeepers have to be understanding and compassionate. I have a phobia of dentists. Even writing this my stomach has just lurched and my teeth started to tingle. Looking up the dentist’s phone number, never mind dialling it, is a huge feat of determination and self control for me. I am terrified. I need the person on the other end of the line to respond to this and work with me. My normal chatty, cheery demeanour is nowhere to be seen. I want to do what I have to and get off the line as fast as possible. I need to be heard and understood. A couple of years ago I found a wonderful practice. And me being able to attend and have treatment all started with a compassionate, professional and understanding receptionist.
Manners can be less that I’d like. I may be curt, to the point, brusque even. But when I’m distressed, for me, my loved ones or for an animal in my care, this is a not an uncommon reaction. I’m fighting my fear and distress in order to help someone I care for. Any gatekeeper of health services, for human or animal, must be taught how to talk to clients who may be in moments of crisis. They must learn about empathy and how to handle and support their clients. Not every abusive-sounding client is a horrible person.
As with most things these days, it’s down to pure luck who is on the other end of the line, whether you’re calling a doctor, dentist or vet practice. I was lucky yesterday. I got someone who listened to me, understood the urgency of the situation and managed to get me a slot in the diary.
Once I got to see the vet, she was lovely. A young vet who took on board all I was saying and who spoke to me like an equal. In return, I asked her how she was coping with the current situation with vets and practices. Despite her mask, I could see her distress when she described the feeling of leaving work on Thursday knowing that there were no appointments available until the following Tuesday. She told me that recently they’d even had to turn away some emergencies. She described how she and her colleagues had discussed the product shortages so vital to their work. I could see in her eyes that she felt powerless and upset.
All in all, like so many other professions and sectors, the veterinary profession is in a dire state. With more demand for their services that ever before, the lingering issues that have plagued them for many years have now been pushed over the brink. These professionals who are so vital to everyone who has the privilege of having animals as part of their family need our support in order that they can support us. We must be patient and compassionate with each other. Vets and clients need to listen and let each other know that they’ve been heard. We are in the trenches together, so must battle shoulder to shoulder to get out of this unholy mess.
So what about Ettie? She was given a course of antibiotics and steroids. I’ve to keep up the medicated baths and take her back in a couple of weeks. Needless to say I’ve already made my appointment. And despite being a 40 mile round trip versus the less than 1 mile round trip to see my local vet, I have now registered Cherry and Ella with Ettie’s vet. And yes, when I’m next there, I will be taking thank you cards and some sweet treats to show all the staff there my appreciation.