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A practitioner ponders

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The question ‘What makes a good vet?’ is one I ask myself often. It came up recently in discussion with a final-year veterinary student.

As an undergraduate I would have listed traits like excellent surgical skills, an ability to communicate well with clients, encyclopaedic medical knowledge, the ability to deal calmly and efficiently with stomach-churning, adrenal-gland milking emergencies, and so forth.

The student's concept of the good vet was similarly focused on clinical prowess – essentially, the ability to perform, confidently and competently, a series of diagnostic and therapeutic tasks, with a smattering of ‘good communication’ thrown in because we are taught that good clinicians are good communicators.

However, experience has taught me that this picture is incomplete. Bradley Viner, in his book ‘Success in Veterinary Practice: Maximising Clinical Outcomes and Personal Well-being’, cites a study in which general practitioners list the hallmarks of medical excellence in their postgraduate students.

Top of the list is a positive response to novelty. ‘The ability to relish the unknown rather than fear it’ ranked way above communication skills and is not an easy trait to cultivate. Uncertainty about a diagnosis or unfamiliarity with a new treatment can be major sources of stress. And yet novelty is potentially the most exciting aspect of clinical practice. Those who feel anxious about it should take a breath and remember that the potential discovery of new conditions and the adoption of new techniques and treatments is part of their job.

Admission to vet school is highly competitive and, with growing numbers of veterinary graduates, so is private practice. Vets increasingly compete with colleagues (within and between practices) for jobs, clients and cases. As a mentor of young vets, I have learned that being able to evaluate oneself against a personal standard, as opposed to the performance of the masses, is the only way to maintain one's mental health. I have also seen practice owners destroy their businesses as a result of ‘wars’ with competing practices.

Although we are educated as scientists, the best clinicians I know are profoundly creative. A good vet can tell a story and sell a story. Thanks to the proliferation of information on the internet, our clients are well informed. This can feel threatening, especially to the inexperienced vet. But the vet's role is vital in bringing together all of the information about a particular case, particularly clinical observations and physical examination findings (a good vet is astute and observant), and determining the best course of action for a particular patient. The key is expressing information coherently and confidently. The facts should be presented in a way that resonates with the client. The best vets build an argument and justify their recommendations. It is not enough to simply state that a test or treatment should be undertaken.

My personal yardstick is this: a good vet is someone I would entrust with the care of my own animals. Their skill set necessarily evolves with emerging evidence and technological advances, but their commitment to learning is unwavering.

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