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Banishing the idea of the omnicompetent vet

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DID you hear the one about the woman who died and went to heaven? She was attending an admission interview when a confident, bearded gentleman in a crisp white laboratory coat interrupted to collect some paperwork and hurried out the door.

‘Who was that?’, she asked her interviewer.

‘That’s God’, the interviewer replied. ‘He thinks he’s a doctor.’

We’re all familiar with the stereotype of the doctor with the God complex.

Yet we don’t tend to hear the same joke about vets. Even though the concept of the omnicompetent vet abounds. With the exception of the odd specialist, vets in the media appear to be able to treat every affliction in any species, from a coughing chinchilla to an elephant with otitis externa. They don’t get caught up justifying their fees to angry clients, and they certainly don’t make mistakes.

The problem is, somewhere along the line, our profession has internalised this public relations fiction.

In a study of veterinary online continuing education participants looking at professional identity, investigators observed that participants often referred to vets as infallible experts: ‘all knowing and free from mistakes and errors’ (Armitage-Chan and others 2016).

Despite acknowledging that such an ideal simply wasn’t feasible at the coal face of veterinary practice, these vets displayed poor coping skills when it came to managing errors, and were quick to criticise colleagues when exposed to videos depicting lapses in professionalism.

In other words, the notion of the infallible professional led vets to harbour unrealistic expectations of themselves, as well as applying those unrealistic expectations to colleagues, and thus being more likely to judge them when they make errors.

Veterinary schools aren’t helping. The emphasis on evidence-based medicine and technical skills maintains the focus on the ‘ideal vet’ as ‘someone who knows everything and is highly technically competent’ (Armitage-Chan and others 2016).

The same study also found that the idea of a vet as a team worker was viewed as a challenge to the professional role. But as single-vet practices decline, the concept of the independent professional is about as current as a stegosaurus in skinny jeans.

A widening gulf between our own expectations and reality can only lead to greater disappointment, which is the last thing a profession in the grips of a mental health epidemic needs. How can we fix this?

The BVA has taken a strong stance when it comes to representation of brachycephalic breeds in advertising, recognising that this perpetuates a concept of ‘cuteness’ that is associated with poor welfare.

Perhaps we need to tackle the representation of vets in the media as omnicompetent, as this perpetuates a falsehood that may lead to unrealistic expectations by members of the public, as well as ourselves. This, in turn, can lead to poor welfare of vets.

We need to acknowledge that vets work in teams. No-one is good at everything – even specialists give up vast areas of practice so that they can develop a high level of competency in a limited field.

I’ve come to terms with the fact that it’s unlikely that I’ll ever perform a rectal on a rhino or, perhaps more within the realms, cruciate ligament surgery on a dog. But it took a little while. There was a voice inside my head that whispered ‘you aren’t a real vet if you haven’t performed a caesarean on a cow’, even though doing so would possibly imperil both parties.

It’s important to extend ourselves beyond our comfort zone and continue to learn, but the ideal of omnicompetence, instilled from day one of veterinary school, needs to be banished.

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