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Royal College Day 2023: Address from outgoing RCVS President Melissa Donald MRCVS

Thank you everyone for being here to celebrate our wonderful professions.

I have just spent the last 52 weeks celebrating exactly that. I stood here last year and said I wanted to get out and about, to meet, speak and listen to as many people as I could, and to take every opportunity to raise the profile of our small but mighty professions at all levels.

My travels have taken me as far north as Inverness, west to Omagh and Aberystwyth, south to Exeter and east to Cambridge and many places in between.

They have included everything from online workshops, to our in-person Regional Question Time meetings; from webinars and panel debates, to discussions with government departments; and from chatting to colleagues over a cup of conference coffee, to the great honour of representing the professions at Queen Elizabeth’s funeral last autumn.

I have also had the real honour to meet our embryonic vets during their first few weeks of vet school, I have spoken to final year students at each vet school and, last Saturday, I admitted the latest cohort of newly fledged veterinary surgeons to the register at Cambridge. They are all full of anticipation, enthusiasm and pride.

What has been clear from everyone I came across is the depth of feeling of how much the majority of people care about the veterinary sector.

I also said last year that we are small but mighty professions, and we really are. We are spread across so many sectors and there are few people, if any, untouched by the work carried out by vets and vet nurses at some point in their lives, whether they are animal owners, livestock farmers, meat-eaters, or those who have used licenced medicines. But in many ways, the professions are a victim of our own success.

We all strive to help animal health and welfare so much, and we are stretching ourselves so thin, that the string may snap before we know it, as we often work so hard at the expense of our own self-care and wellbeing.

This is not the place for politicking, we all know a new Veterinary Surgeons Act is needed, but it will not be a ‘magical fix all immediately’ tablet. Although, saying that, if anyone is listening out there who has influence on these issues, please seriously look at our request for legislative change and vet school funding!

What can we do as professions to help ourselves? The college, as you have already heard and seen in our annual report, has many different streams running that aim to mitigate the issues the professions face, whether it’s the workforce action plan, potential new career pathways, the new vet school accreditation standards, as well as supporting mental well-being with the Mind Matters Initiative, to mention but a few.

A few voices over the last year have bemoaned various issues which they believe have exacerbated workforce issues, including the type of student entering the professions, corporatization, the pandemic, Brexit or the increase in pet ownership.

The real situation is that there is no one single thing that has caused the overstretching of our resources, but to be sure it isn’t the type of student being admitted. The calibre of the students and their education are vastly superior to the past.

But it is because things change.

Not just in our veterinary bubble, not just in the UK, but globally.

Speaking about the workforce to a group of people at a congress in May, I was explaining that career pathways are no longer linear, ie it did not follow the path of student, new graduate, assistant, junior partner, senior partner and hopefully (but not guaranteed) retirement before death.

The group in front of me were vets, nurses and a couple of final year animal physio students. I asked the vets and nurses their career pathways and, not surprisingly, they were fairly traditional, still working hard in practice, hadn’t retired yet and possibly had had a career break at some point for childcare reasons.

I moved onto the students and asked what their plans were post-graduation. Straight away they were looking at flexibility, part time portfolio careers. This is what many of our new veterinary surgeons and nurses will want too.

And it is our responsibility to ensure animal health and welfare, as well as the public’s trust in us, are protected as we navigate these changes

The public has changed too. They are far more vocal, with far more access to information from many different sources, and far more demanding.

A few weeks ago I was waiting for a supermarket delivery at home, between 4 and 5pm. By 10 minutes past 5 I was already on the phone looking to find out why it hadn’t arrived.

I reflected quite quickly on my behaviour and admonished myself almost immediately, for behaving like that. I was frustrated as my dogs were waiting for their walk, that is all. The food arrived well before 6, the van had simply broken down.

So, what I learnt was to be more patient (never one of my strong points!) and, if the tables were turned, to communicate more.

But do not forget, the vast majority of the public are not angry, demanding or derogatory. They trust the veterinary professions implicitly. However, trust is slow to build up and easily lost and we should never forget that.

I got to this point in my speech a couple of weeks ago and hit a brick wall. What on earth was I to say, profound, important, a once in a lifetime opportunity to be heard across the relevant sectors.

So I went for a run! Obviously! The week before I had run a superfast 5k, well, it was for me anyway! This run was different. This was a brain breathing-space run. There were walk breaks, noticing nature breaks, avoiding traffic breaks, but most of all it was time to get ideas flowing again.

This segues nicely into our amazing sporting heroes. Look at all the fabulous superstars we have within our ranks including Laura Muir, Rob Pope, Jasmine Paris, and Neah Evans. But the profession is not new to this with David Logue competing in the 1970 Commonwealth Games in the steeplechase.

One of our newest members to this club is RVN Jack Pye, who recently won the European Open Pairs in short mat bowling last month.

These people are very visible role models. I’d like to take a moment to thank every single one of you here in this room, in your practices and workplaces too. Our everyday superheroes. You are all role models, often unwittingly. We influence the next generation every day of our lives whether we realise it or not and that is quite a responsibility.

But to me this goes hand in hand as part of being a professional. In a way, you are never ‘off’ duty. We are ethically and morally duty bound to do our best, all the time.

We feel whatever we do reflects on us, be it at home or at work. A few people thrive on this and manage it admirably. Others never manage and there are the bulk of us who stumble our way through with many obstacles, hoping to appear as serene as a swan above the water and paddling madly underneath.

What I would like our professions to avoid is paralysis by analysis. To be unable to make a decision due to overthinking a problem, to then be so fearful of making the wrong decision that in the end you go nowhere, or the next step, making the decision, but being too fearful of fulfilling it so that eventually we refer everything to someone further up the chain.

You cannot learn if you never try. I look at my granddaughters, who try new things every day and learn by not being afraid of failure.

Now, I’m not trying to say we go gung-ho into procedures without due care and attention. But good mentorship, from the first steps of VetGDP together with good research and learning from quality CPD, should enable our next generation to be more confident in trying out procedures we regularly did in primary care practice, before referral was as routine an option.

All the way through my year in office I have been saying that we shouldn’t hark back to what we did in ‘my day’, but make the professions fit for purpose for the next generation. But humour me here. There is a balance. The best bit for me of being a primary care veterinary surgeon is the variety of work. If we take that away because of fear of failure, and purely become a facilitator for others to do the non-routine work, is it surprising that many of these highly intelligent young professionals are dissatisfied with their roles?

Emptying anal glands and chatting to people as you vaccinate their pets, as important as they are, have their limitations. In other veterinary sectors there are different issues, but let’s try to look at the roles within primary care practice through the eyes of someone who has recently qualified and try to think of what support and experiences they need to stay in the profession that excites and challenges them in some way.

Let’s look at what DID make the job exciting together with what the new graduates of tomorrow WILL want. Let’s make the roles flexible, the workplaces welcoming and support for all members of the team to be the best they can be.

Practice, not perfection, is what we should aim for.

Be brave, not reckless, but brave. To those listening, put your hands up and say yes to opportunities, give things a go. They won’t all succeed, but they will take you to places you would never have thought possible. And all the way through, be kind and support one another.

I must take this opportunity to thank so many people for supporting me throughout this fabulous year.

To the staff at the RCVS: you are simply the best, you care as deeply about our professions as we do. Thank you for welcoming me, helping me and making this year phenomenal.

To the senior leadership team: thank you for letting a real amateur into your fold... no imposter syndrome here!

To the veterinary sectors: thank you for your joint officer meetings and your conferences. Each one totally individual and during which I learned so much.

To the veterinary schools, the incubators of our future: it has been an absolute pleasure meeting with you all, our future is safe with you.

To our vet nurses: you rock, your admission ceremonies were amazing, we cannot function without you, and when we work well together we are the perfect symbiosis.

To the veterinary professions: keep caring and challenging us at the RCVS constructively. As I said earlier, you are the everyday superheroes on the front line.

To Lizzie, our CEO with the broadest shoulders of us all, you protect us and lead us. Thank you. Your work often goes unsung, but believe me, we would not be where we are without you leading us to be a compassionate forward-looking regulator, admired by many other UK and worldwide regulators.

And finally (you’ll be glad to know) thank you to my family and friends. You have supported me and given me the space and time to fulfil this role.

Who knows what is next. What’s for you won’t go past you, has been my mantra for decades. But one thing for sure, this year will be hard to beat.

I mentioned earlier that I have been running well this summer… this has really just been training for now.

Sue, if you want the bling, you will have to catch me first!


July 2023