The VetSet2Go project aims to shift the focus from competency to success and improve the employability of new veterinary graduates, writes Shane Conroy
The veterinary industry is a tough business. A recent study by the Australian Veterinary Association found that suicide rates among veterinarians in Western Australia and Victoria are around four times that of the general population.
While reducing the suicide rate is a complex and difficult issue, it’s becoming clear that graduates entering the profession must be equipped with the skills to negotiate a high-stress industry.
That’s just one driving factor behind the VetSet2Go project that aims to help veterinary students look beyond technical competencies to develop the necessary communication and business skills.
“Everybody is aware of the stress in vet practice. It’s a particularly unpredictable and demanding work environment,” says Martin Cake, VetSet2Go project leader and associate professor at Murdoch University’s School of Veterinary and Life Sciences.
“The emotional aspect of veterinary work—what we call compassion fatigue—has a draining element to it. We need to give students the tools to cope with those elements in a positive, healthy way. And if we address that properly, it should reduce the dropout rate from the profession.”
But it’s not just compassion fatigue that risks derailing veterinary graduates entering the industry. Cake argues that while universities excel at teaching technical competencies, a lack of focus on general business and communication skills may be holding graduates back from developing the employability practice owners expect.
“Traditional vet education has limitations in preparing students for the needs of a modern practice,” he says. “Universities are fairly slow ships to turn around, but that gap has been pretty clearly identified and there are already changes happening that are starting to turn it around.”
Dr Karen Davies, owner of Victoria-based Direct Vet Services, agrees: “The courses vary between universities, so we have some students who are a lot more adept at hitting the ground running and earning enough to off-set their income from the word go.”
Communication is key
While Cake and Davies agree that most graduates come out of university with strong technical competencies, they often lack the people skills and business awareness that practice owners look for in new recruits. “There’s quite a live debate going on at the moment about what the expectations of students should be and what is the appropriate level of business skills for a new graduate,” says Cake.
For Davies, communication skills directly affect the employability of new graduates, and those who lack them render themselves ineffective when dealing with clients. “We’ve had a number of students with us over the years and most cannot talk to clients,” she says. “I’ve told several students that clients don’t mind if you don’t know. If you can say to them, ‘Look, I’m not sure what’s going on here, but I’m going to find out’, then clients are very forgiving of that.
“But if you just sit there and mumble at the floor, that does not instil confidence in the client. You need to be able to speak to people—not just recite technical terms—to ensure the client can grasp what you’re trying to explain.”
It’s also crucial that new graduates feel comfortable talking to clients about money. Otherwise, they may cost the practice a significant amount in lost earnings.
“That is something new graduates struggle with and a skill they really need to be equipped with to be practice ready,” says Cake. “They need a general financial awareness of where the money comes from in a veterinary small business.”
“Students are often very confident in what they think needs to be done, but sometimes forget to go through the process with the client and don’t bill the client for it,” adds Davies. “Most vets in practice cost the business about $60,000 per year in lost billing. So if three vets are losing $60,000 each year, that’s $180,000, or 20 per cent, of the annual turnover of a million-a-year practice.”
And graduates must be capable of providing a choice of treatment options across a range or price points that can be tailored to the individual needs of their clients, says Davies.
“Universities teach gold standard—which they should—but that’s not always suitable either economically or situationally for the client. Graduates must understand that you need to give clients a sliding scale of choices. You need to consider what’s going to work for each individual client.”
A question of success
“There’s always a problem with curriculum overload and it is hard to find space and time to be able to turn attention to things like business and practice management skills,” says Cake. “Instead of just giving them a long list of technical competencies they have to learn, universities need to really flag some key areas of personal and professional development.”
VetSet2Go aims to define the capabilities most important for employability in the veterinary profession, and then create assessment tools and resources to build them. “In most vet education, the dominant language is around competency—being prepared and able to do the tasks of a vet,” says Cake. “But it rarely talks about how to be really successful. It almost obscures the need to have graduates succeed. But it’s not just about meeting their employer’s expectations. Graduates need to be happy and satisfied in their work, and meeting their own expectations.
“It’s about shifting the focus onto what’s important. That’s the first step to really starting to change.”