The view from the hill

Photography: Courtesy Channel Nine

Australian Dr Scott Miller, well-known to British TV audiences from the series The Vet on the Hill, explains how the series showed him that an education about animals can take place on both sides of the camera. By John Burfitt

Dr Scott Miller is deep in conversation, explaining the importance of diversity in veterinary skills and the need for the modern vet to multiskill across many areas to meet client expectations.

On the day of our interview, Dr Miller is the very personification of multiskilling. At the same time he is discussing the topic, he’s also driving across London with his three children in the back seat on their way to school. Once that job is done, he has a morning in the clinic, and then a day of checking on filming schedules for the next season of his TV show, Vet on the Hill.

All of which combines to reveal many sides of the Brisbane-born-and-raised vet. So, it’s almost no surprise when, in mid sentence about the skills he’s learned while hosting the TV series, he suddenly says, “No, darling, you need to wear your seatbelt all the way until we get to school, so please put it back on until we get there”.

Then without missing a beat, Dr Miller returns to his tale about filming a story about treating a cow on a farm in Wales, recalling skills he had not used since his days as a student at the University of Queensland (UQ).

“Oh, this is just a normal day, but everything seems to get done by the end of it,” he quips. “One thing our job as vets teaches us is how to multitask.”

Dr Miller has no complaints about his schedule, combining running three London practices with the demands of filming seasons of Vet on the Hill, which is currently screening in Australia on the Nine Network.

If anything, he seems to thrive on the challenge and as a result, has become one of the best-known vets in the UK.

“As vets, we have such a great job, and I’m so happy to use this show as an opportunity to further the education of owners, so that people become smarter with the care of their pets,” he says.

“I’ve been intrigued by the way that the people watching take in the details of what we do in treating the animals—especially the kids watching. It’s like a form of stealth learning.”

It was the reaction he had after the recent screening of a story about cats with hyperthyroidism that best revealed the impact of the content of the show.

“We had this flood of emails from people stating, ‘My cat has been showing very similar symptoms, so I’m taking it to have a blood test done’,” he recalls. “I was like, ‘Great—happy days!’ If you can have that much influence about caring for animals without having to see them all and to help the owners make good choices if they’re people who can’t always afford to go to the vet, then that’s a good reason about being comfortable with what I’m doing on TV.”

But, as it turns out, the lessons have run both ways. Now in preparation for the third season of the show—it’s the first season currently screening on Nine, with the second season due on air in the coming months—Dr Miller admits working in front of the cameras and being presented with a range of issues has not only reinforced what his 20 years of working as a vet has taught him since graduating from UQ, but also revealed the extent of what he doesn’t know. And that’s a situation he’s increasingly comfortable with.

“It’s been good for me to get to a point in my career where I can comfortably admit that I don’t know the answer to everything, and so you take the audience on the journey of discovery with you as you find out what needs to be done,” he says.

“Just because we are animal doctors, it does not mean we know everything about every single animal that exists—that’s an impossible expectation to have, and I think that’s an approach experienced vets are comfortable enough in their own skins to embrace.

“There can be such a sense of competitiveness and rivalry that goes on along with an intellectual one-upmanship early in veterinary careers which I just find so boring. I think it should be all about collaboration as a profession, so we can be brave enough to ask questions when we need to, and then go on from there.”

He refers again to the story he was filming in Wales that proved to be one of his most challenging, but also one of the most rewarding in terms of his own learning.

“As vets we have such a great job, and I’m so happy to use this show as an opportunity to further the education of owners, so that people become smarter with the care of their pets.”

“There was one episode when I went to work in a bustling, large farm practice— and I have not done any farm work since university—so at first I was like, ‘How can I possibly know anything about farm animals when I have lived and worked in London all this time?’” he laughs.

“So, it was a situation of adapting to variation of scale and a great opportunity for me to get my hand in there again—pardon the pun—and I so enjoyed it. I got on well with the vets and gave them the full respect they deserve for everything they know, and we had a great relationship working alongside each other. It was actually a very empowering experience for me.”

Dr Miller, 42, graduated from the UQ Veterinary School in 1997 and landed his first job at the RSPCA in Sydney. He refers to his university experience on several occasions through the interview as “the best years of life.”

In 1999, he headed to the UK to work and then to Portugal to set up a practice, before returning to the UK. At the same time, he married his wife Zoe; the couple now has three children.

Dr Miller with his wife, British presenter Zo Christian, and their young family

It was while working back in London that he landed his break in television when he received a call one day to attend to the sick chickens in the Big Brother house. That appearance lead to new opportunities and he became a regular on the BBC Breakfast News and This Morning on ITV. He continued to juggle his practice work with media appearances until the offer to host Vet on the Hill came in 2015.

“I like the creative outlet of doing this,” he admits. “Our job as vets is very left brain and very much by the textbook so it’s quite nice to do something a little bit more creative and I felt the balance really suited me.

“I also feel we just have a great job and I just want to show what that really entails so people get a better understanding of what we do. If it also means that some of the kids watching it grow up with a sense of respect for animals and animal welfare, then I’ve done my job and I feel very proud of that aspect.”

Managing the expectations at the three clinics has, however, demanded much more of a juggling act. Filming for season one took three months, and the second season took nine, requiring extended periods of being away from his practices.

“It’s been incredibly hectic, as alongside all this, I am also a dad and a husband and a manager in the practices, so it all comes down to managing expectations and ensuring your staffing is right so there is good continuity of care at every level,” he says.

“That has not been without its challenges, but it’s something we continue to work at—with a lot of understanding among the team to make it happen. As the boss, I am pulled from pillar to post from as soon as I walk in until I leave, so there’s no rest for the wicked when I’m in the practice, and that’s just how it is.”

As for client expectations, Dr Miller has found some are more committed than others. “We are based in southwest London and on one day, we have one client that drove in from Essex and another from Norfolk, so they’re coming some distance to see us, which is very flattering,” he says. “I’m sure there are some great vets where they are, but I think they relate and engage with the show and just want to have a chat.

“Overall, we’ve had an overwhelmingly positive reaction to the fact the clinics are involved with the TV show, and we’ve found that the business has actually grown. At the end of the day, most people don’t expect they will get to see me all the time, but I try to see clients on a regular basis.”

Dr Miller—who has also published the book Puppy Parenting—is more than aware of the cool attitudes of some in the industry about the way TV vets are elevated to celebrity status. He admits to encountering a mixture of reactions from industry colleagues to his on-camera work, but stands by what he believes the show contributes.

“It’s just frustrating when people see it as an ability to showboat and I do feel the tall poppy syndrome comes into it, which is sad because if you watch our program you’ll see I’m just proud of our mission and our profession,” he says.

“What we’re doing is good for our profession. As vets, we might not be the most gregarious bunch across the board, so for someone to stand up and do this, I think, is a positive for the profession overall. I’m proud of it.”

Vet on the Hill screens on the Nine Network in Melbourne and Perth, and is due to screen around the rest of the country in the coming months. It’s also available on 9now.com.au.

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