Whether she’s saving an emergency patient on the Gold Coast, speaking at a conference in Melbourne, or lobbying government officials in Canberra, AVA president Paula Parker is across the small details and the big-picture implications of what’s going on. By Heather Vaile
Dr Paula Parker was just 22 years old when she accepted her first veterinary job, 1800 kilometres away from her home in Brisbane. It was at a big practice in Leongatha, a small rural town located in the foothills of the Strzelecki Ranges in Victoria’s South Gippsland region.
“When I moved down to Leongatha, I moved to a totally different town, in a different state and I was working in a busy dairy practice,” she says. “I was seeing clients who’d been farmers for 30, 40 or 50 years. So, you have to gain their trust and their respect and do the job. That was stressful but I think that experience of working as a dairy vet has helped me the most as a clinician.
“I didn’t always get it right. I got kicked my fair share of times and I had my fair share of injuries, but it helped me develop the ability to be calm under pressure and work through problems in a methodical way.”
Another thing that helped Dr Parker was being a member of the AVA. “I didn’t know anybody at Leongatha except Melissa Rogers, who’d been a fifth-year student when I was in first year at uni, and we became friends.
“There are a couple of big practices nearby and the Gippsland branch of the AVA is quite an active and very social branch. We’d go to social functions and do continuing education there as well, and those people were an enormous support network, especially when you’re a young vet and you’ve moved to a new town.
“They were supportive in a professional way. I could give them a call and ask any question about vet stuff, but the part that was most helpful to me was that we were a group that just supported each other as people too.”
Fast forward 10 years, and Dr Parker has now worked as a mixed practitioner, small animal clinician, emergency and critical care (ECC) vet, ECC education consultant, and a veterinary director at an animal hospital. She has also earned a clinical master’s in small animal practice, membership of the Australia and New Zealand College of Veterinary Scientists in emergency and critical care, and is completing her MBA this year.
Her term as AVA president began in June last year and although it’s a full-time position, Dr Parker still works weekend shifts at the Animal Emergency Service (AES) hospital on the Gold Coast when she can.
Also at the AES is Dr Rob Webster. He is a director of the hospital and a specialist ECC vet. Dr Webster has known Dr Parker since 2015 and says they work together on the most difficult cases that come in over the weekends—those patients that require life support or emergency surgery.
“She never skips over a problem, she never misses the importance of a problem and she approaches her cases in a very holistic way. She doesn’t get tunnel vision, which is a problem for a lot of vets.”—Dr Rob Webster, director, Animal Emergency Service
He describes her as “brilliant, determined and conscientious”, and adds that “she pays great attention to detail and that’s invaluable when you’re working with complex cases which have a number of different problems.
“She never skips over a problem, she never misses the importance of a problem and she approaches her cases in a very holistic way. She doesn’t get tunnel vision, which is a problem for a lot of vets.”
It did not surprise him in the least when Dr Parker became AVA president. “Once she was voted in as a director of the AVA, I could see she had a very clear vision for the organisation. I was almost certain that she would become the AVA president because she was working from a platform of youth, inclusion and technology. And that’s what the AVA really needs.
“Because Paula comes in as a young female, she better represents most of the young female veterinarians out there and she can engage with them. And she also brings the ability to access technology and social media in a way that no-one else on that board can.
“Yet because of her strong background in management, she can also represent practice owners and can certainly see their perspective as well. We’ve now got one of the most driven and dedicated veterinarians that I’ve ever met in charge of the AVA—and she’s still got another 20 years to go before her career even peaks.”
“A lot of what the AVA does is about facilitating people to thrive,” she says. “And for some people that’s about education; for some it’s about collegiality in their community; for some it’s about having a tool or a system that will help them; for some it’s about us promoting the profession out there in the community; and for others, it’s getting the messages out that people care about and advocating on their behalf to the government.”
She sees this advocacy role as hugely important and spends about half of her time working with the AVA’s media and advocacy team on federal policy and advocacy issues in Canberra. She also supports the state divisions and leaders of the special interest groups in their advocacy with state government on big issues, or where the AVA needs more resources directed to particular issues, such as the Hendra virus.
The other half of her time is pretty much taken up chairing the board and liaising closely with the CEO on operational matters that support the AVA’s five strategic priorities: improving animal welfare, planning an effective veterinary workforce, ensuring economic sustainability, better regulation and fighting antimicrobial resistance.
“Amazing things are happening with imaging and clinical pathology using new technology, which is exciting and great for practices. And the capability of the business software that we have now is just phenomenal.”—Dr Paula Parker, AVA president
While Dr Parker cares deeply about all these priorities, she says the issue that’s closest to her heart is the financial health and wellbeing of AVA members.
“I worry that a lot of people in our profession are not at a point of economic comfort and particularly as our profession becomes more feminised.
“The financial model in our industry previously was that you were a young vet and you earned a pretty meagre wage and then you became a practice owner and your income went up from there. But as more practices have become corporatised, we haven’t seen that lift in wages come through. And that’s reflected in the fact that more and more vets will be employees throughout their working lives.”
However, she points out that there have also been a lot of positives that have come with increased corporatisation within the industry too—and one of those is that it’s enabled more people to work part-time. That said, the wages issue still concerns her on a number of fronts. “Everybody acknowledges that the remuneration in our sector is not where we would like it to be and that could be a threat to us on many levels. Having a reasonable level of economic comfort is not only important to people’s mental health but it’s also important for our industry globally so that we’re sustainable and that we retain talented people in the industry. But there’s not a magical panacea as to how you solve that situation.
“One of the most common things we colloquially hear from practice owners is that ‘we would love to pay our vets more but the business doesn’t quite have the profitability to make those changes sustainable’. And that puts the business, and everybody who’s employed by that business, at risk.
“So, one of the things we need to do is to improve the profitability of vet businesses. That will then allow a greater amount of revenue to be allocated to wages.”
When asked if she has any business advice for other practitioners, she says, “I think the biggest thing is just the power of having a plan—not making it too complicated, but doing it monthly, weekly and daily. And regularly checking on that plan.”
Dr Parker is also keeping a close eye on another significant workplace issue for vets—the rapid pace of technological change. “Technology is a great one to dig into because it creates a lot of opportunities and there are so many things that we’re doing better and faster and more often now than we ever have before.
“It involves some really cool stuff. Amazing things are happening with imaging and clinical pathology using new technology, which is exciting and great for practices. And the capability of the business software that we have now is just phenomenal.
“Quite often, a lot of people are using only the top 10 or 20 per cent of the capabilities of their practice software and it can do so much more. So, it’s a really exciting time for us in terms of how the AVA can help people to leverage those different technologies to make their lives easier, make their practices better, make their business more profitable and ultimately, just do a better job—which is what everybody wants.”