FINANCIAL support may be required to continue providing out-of-hours services by the veterinary profession in isolated rural areas, according to a Clare vet.
Killaloe Vets senior partner, Tadhg Gavin, has revealed retention of qualified personnel in the veterinary profession is one of the big issues facing this sector.
His comments came after Veterinary Ireland announced it will seek central funding from the government to support the provision of out-of-hours services by the veterinary profession like other professional groups – including specific supports for the provision of veterinary services in rural areas.
A survey of the veterinary profession in Ireland has identified major concerns in relation to working conditions, especially regarding work-life balance, which could undermine the long-term sustainability of veterinary and out of hours services, particularly in rural parts of the country.
The professional body Veterinary Ireland has set a key objective over the next five years to work towards improving the work-life balance of vets in Ireland.
The findings of Veterinary Ireland’s Benchmark Survey 2020 were presented to Veterinary Ireland members at the organisation’s AGM and Conference at the Knightsbrook Hotel in Trim recently.
“Some of the principal reasons given why vets would not choose a veterinary career again if they were back at career choice stage, were poor work-life balance, poor wages, and poor working conditions including long working hours and ‘on-call’ arising from poor rotas,” said Veterinary Ireland chief executive Finbarr Murphy.
“It is incumbent on all stakeholders to work together to find meaningful ways to address these issues.”
“This is necessary to ensure the continuation of the high level of services available to the public whilst improving the work- life balance of the people working as veterinarians,” he added.
Having qualified as a veterinary surgeon from UCD in 2010, Tadhg Gavin worked in Kanturk for five years until an opportunity came up to purchase Killaloe Vets’ practice with his business partner and former classmate Sinead Hennessy.
The Bunratty native was also delighted with the opportunity to work in his own county. Killaloe Vets is a three-vet practice with Mr Gavin, Ms Hennessy and Diarmuid O’Connor.
Mr Gavin admitted there are very few one or two-vet practices left any more, with three vets considered to be an average size as practices continue to get bigger to increase their attractiveness to hire staff.
“We have to provide a service for our clients 24 hours a day 365 days a year. There is no other profession in Ireland that does that unlimited. General practitioners are heavily subsidised to provide an out-of-hours service.”
“Dentists don’t have to provide a 24-hour service, which is completely self-funded by the industry. It is becoming more and more difficult to provide an out-of-hours service.
“People may romanticise about the James Herriot days of being out in the middle of the night with a cow calving. The reality is a lot more different.
“Vets are not paid to be on call. If a vet is very busy at night, it can be difficult to be available to handle phone calls and work at the same time.
“The biggest issue is retention getting people to stay in the profession as a lot of vets can go to work in the Department of Agriculture, county councils or drug companies.”
Commenting on a recent survey of vets, he noted only 40% of those surveyed who didn’t own a practice had any intention of ever taking over one.
This raises a lot of issues in terms of who will be available to take over the running of practices when vets retire.
When it comes to the time for himself and Ms Hennessy to retire, he said it could be hard to get qualified people to take over from them based on current trends.
With a greater emphasis on work life balance, Mr Gavin admitted it can be difficult to comply with the requirements of the EU Working Time Directive when vets are working late at night, particularly during the spring time, which can be very difficult organising rosters.
Even if a vet works late at night, he is legally required to read a TB test if this is scheduled for the farmer the following day.
Recently, Mr Gavin worked until 2am and got four hours’ sleep until 6am. The following day he was up again at 6am as two of his colleagues were away on a training course.
Acknowledging that animals can get sick any time during the day or night, he stressed out-of-hours should be confined to emergencies as a vet shouldn’t be called out at night to deal with an issue, which has been troubling an animal for days.
In some isolated areas like West Clare or Connemara, he said it can be hard to attract vets, which in turn means rotas become even more problematic for the remaining vet.
Decades ago, he recalled there was some funding to help maintain practices in rural areas. Veterinary practices are also being hit by rising costs such as the increased charge for accreditation.
He acknowledged it would be helpful if some state funding was available for the provision of an out-of-hours service, particularly in very isolated rural areas.
Since 2015, he revealed there has been a huge increase in the workload treating small animals as more people got pets, particularly during the pandemic.
“People are at home more with their vets and are noticing problems. We are busier without doing more work because we had to make our consultation times longer as only one person is allowed into the office.
“We have to clean down our consultation rooms and take other Covid-19 precautions. We have managed to keep our practice open for the last two years without closing for a single day.
TB testing continued throughout the whole pandemic as nothing stopped.
“The large animal workload is staying the same. A lot of suckling farmers are getting out of suckling and going into rearing drystock. There was expansion in the dairy sector in 2017 and 2018, which seems to have plateaued.”
As some people went back into their work office, he said it is important to note that a puppy isn’t just for Christmas or for during the pandemic as they must be properly cared for all year round.
“People have become a lot more aware of the needs of their animals. The life expectancy of cats and dogs is a lot longer than it was ten years ago.”
By Dan Danaher