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Royal College Day 2023: Address by Dr Sue Paterson FRCVS, incoming RCVS President for 2023-24

If you had asked me 10 years ago if I had any aspirations to be president of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons I would have laughed at you.

I am a clinician through and through, and although I do less clinical work than I used to, as a veterinary trustee of Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, shelter medicine and especially contextualised care is very close to my heart and as a Veterinary Dermatology Specialist I still get really excited by furuncles and ulcers and of course you can’t beat a large flaccid pustule. 

However, this year my focus will shift as I take on my presidential role and I promise I will do my very best to serve our amazing professions.

I’d would like to start though by once again acknowledging the incredible work undertaken by our out-going President Melissa. 

I have learnt a huge amount from Melissa over the last year twelve months. She describes herself as a “bog standard” vet but I would suggest no vet, least of all primary care practitioners, are bog standard and Melissa in particular is not. 

She has steered the RCVS through some challenging issues over the last year with an admirable calmness and fortitude that I hope I can emulate. As my Senior Vice President I hope I can rely on her experience and friendship when I am floundering. Thank you again Melissa for everything you have done. 

Many people have asked me if I was going to take sustainability as my presidential theme this year. 

Anyone who knows me, knows that sustainability is something I am passionate about. However, I am confident that with the incorporation of sustainability into the new RCVS accreditation standards for the vet schools and the changes to our Practice Standards Scheme, which includes changes to core standards and therefore code requirements, that the professions are a long way down the road to addressing climate change. 

In addition with the ongoing work of inspirational people like Laura Higham, one of our award winners here today, BVA and its species divisions, organisations like Vet Sustain and the efforts of both corporate and independent practices, there is a real ambition to push towards net zero in the veterinary sector.

I promise that, however busy I may be, I will always make time to help support sustainability through collaboration with veterinary stakeholders and through RCVSs ongoing work on net zero surgery and medicine through the RCVS Fellowship. 

Instead, my theme will be focussed around recruitment and particularly widening participation as one of the three themes of the RCVS Workforce Action Plan.

I want to get out during my presidential year and talk to school children and teachers, especially head teachers at their conferences, to make them aware of the opportunities that are available to a veterinary science graduate.

I want to continue to work with the Vet Schools Council’s Widening Participation Vet Schools Network to make school children from all backgrounds aware, whether they are from a large, single-sex private school, or a mixed faith inner city comprehensive, that veterinary science is accessible to them. 

A veterinary science degree equips graduates with the appropriate skillset to follow a myriad of different career paths. For example, in clinical practice caring for people beloved pets or working with farmers to produce high welfare food in an economical and sustainable way. Not to mention groundbreaking research into human and animal diseases, public health to help safeguard food security, the pharmaceutical industry to develop new and innovative treatments and the armed forces to maintain the health and welfare of military working animals. I could go on. 

As professions, and this means not just veterinary surgeons but veterinary nurses, we need to get out there and sell ourselves to the wider public. We have made a start but we need to become more inclusive and diverse. We need to do some myth-busting about the real requirements needed to be a vet or vet nurse. There is no doubt you do need to have good A levels to study veterinary medicine, but beyond that bright students from any background can join our professions. You can be a veterinary surgeon or veterinary nurse if you are black or white; Muslim or Christian and from any socioeconomic background. 

I am not from an affluent background; I didn’t go to a private school. I was fortunate enough to go to my local grammar school. However, the careers advice I was given was hopelessly flawed. I was told by my chemistry teacher that girls that went into science ended up washing bottles and when I failed to make the grades to get into vet school they told me I probably wasn’t clever enough to be a vet.

I can remember being told very firmly, as I choked back tears on A level results day, that I shouldn’t waste any time retaking A levels but just go and join the army! 

If those teachers were still alive today, I would have got them front row seats this afternoon. 

Sadly, many of the misconceptions that were present 30 years ago are still there today.

If I can use my position as President of the RCVS over the next 12 months to convince just a few students that veterinary science is a rewarding career that perhaps they had never considered, if I can convince a couple of teachers to sign post their brighter students to career resources for veterinary science, then I will be happy that I have been able to make a difference. 


July 2023