Defending the principles on which trust in the profession has been built - Veterinary Practice
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Defending the principles on which trust in the profession has been built

In the graduation pictures from a veterinary school 40-odd years ago you will see lots of faces that look a little like Robin Hargreaves. Many of those in the photo will be similarly tall and physically imposing men. And like him, they would often be sons of farmers, who look comfortable in a tweed jacket and bear the scars that reveal a lifelong passion for rugby union.

But rest assured, the new BVA president is very much the modern veterinary practitioner and not some sort of throwback. Indeed, his rise up the ladder of professional politics has been inspired by motives that would have seemed rather alien to the bluff, practical-minded men who were the typical owners of a 1960 mixed practice: a concern for the welfare of their colleagues, as well as their clients and patients.

Robin is a senior partner in an 18vet group based in four centres around Colne in Lancashire. That is a fairly substantial enterprise, but it is still a major step to take charge of an organisation with multi-million pound turnover and more than 13,500 members.

Astonished to be asked

He admits his astonishment at being asked to stand for president, particularly as he has never shown any interest in seeking political office.

“I became involved with BVA through the member services committee, looking at the different ways that the association can serve its membership, and that is still the perspective that I hold.

“I’m learning about the political aspects of the job and am finding that fascinating but that is not really the reason that I am here.”

Robin grew up on a livestock farm near Settle on the east side of the Pennines and qualified from the Liverpool in 1985. His goal had always been to be a farm animal vet and so it was a surprise to his friends and family that he made a career in small animal medicine.

Before joining the practice where he has been for 25 years, Robin’s first job was in farm practice in Shropshire. The experience of working in a onein-two rota and then being left in sole charge during his boss’s illness left him open to the possibility of choosing a different career path. It also shaped his response towards the sometimes neglectful way that the profession treats its young graduates.

Once established in Colne, he became involved in the BVA’s Lancashire division which, like many local associations, was facing increasing difficulties in maintaining attendances. Fewer and fewer vets were prepared to drive long distances to attend an evening meeting after a full day’s work, despite the obvious professional and psychological benefits of mixing with colleagues outside the practice.

Those who did turn up were generally those who had least need of that companionship, being happy and settled in their jobs. Robin wanted to attract those who were sitting at home anxious about the next morning’s clinic and uncertain that they had made the right career choice.

Robin’s idea was to use LVI training meetings at nearby Myerscough agricultural college as the venue for efforts to bring newlyqualified practitioners together so that they could build their own mutual support network.

Encouraging local networks

Since the ministry declined to offer lunch for its trainee LVIs, Robin and his fellow officers in the now dormant Lancashire association decided that its remaining funds could be used to bring in a few sandwiches.

In his presidential year, Robin hopes the BVA will encourage young graduates to build similar local networks all around the country. “I have learned, though, that this sort of activity won’t work as a top-down initiative, the effort has to come up from the membership. But what we can do is to help provide the conditions under which they can thrive – we can act as facilitators.”

In his acceptance speech on becoming president, Robin chose the idea of “trust in the profession” as his theme for the year. Why was that?

“When I first qualified as a veterinary surgeon I was astonished in the faith that clients showed in my professional skills at a time when, frankly, I wasn’t very good. I did get better but like most young vets I survived initially on the goodwill that practitioners have earned over many generations.

Putting something back

“It is like money in the bank, at first you have to draw on what others have put in. Eventually you will be able to put something back.

“So I am determined to defend the principles on which that trust has been built. So, for example, I believe we must keep our pledge to provide a 24hour service to our clients. The medical profession walked away from that obligation – in time we may follow them, but it is not going to happen on my watch.”

As well as helping to guard the profession’s public reputation, he is also required to represent the association in its dealings with government. Despite being a small animal vet, his family background has given him a head start in dealing with some of the more technically challenging and politically sensitive issues he will face, like the badger cull and future TB testing arrangements.

“The BVA is a democratic organisation and an officer’s duty is to reflect the views of the membership. If on occasions those views differ from those that you personally hold, that’s too bad, you still have to do it.

“Of course, it is a lot easier when the policies are ones that you fully support and in the case of TB control, I think we have got it exactly right. The badger cull is regrettable but it has to be done; it won’t work on its own but in combination with other actions it may provide the tipping point that finally brings the disease under control.”

Robin points out that the presidency is not a one-man show and any decisions he makes will reflect the advice of his predecessor Peter Jones and his successor John Blackwell. Continuity is vital because the issues on the agenda of any one president will usually still be there to trouble the next.

Over the next few months, Robin will be signing the cheques that launch an IT project intended to revolutionise the way that the BVA communicates with its members, allowing staff at Mansfield Street to send information targeted to their individual needs.

Robin will have dropped off the other end of the perch by the time that project reaches fruition. But in the meantime, there is one simple metric that he hopes can be used to judge the success of his presidential year.

“As I have said before, if you are a vet and you get into difficulties then the only people who genuinely care about you are your mum and your professional association – and your mum can’t really help.

“Our members need the BVA just as much as we need their support to ensure that we have the mandate to represent them.

“As the numbers of vets in this country is growing we will need to attract new members at a faster rate than the increase in numbers on the Register.

“If we can do that, I will have achieved what I set out to do.”I

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