by Dr Becky Nicholson MRCVS
Breaking into life as a qualified veterinary surgeon is intimidating, illuminating, and overwhelming. You’re high on post-graduation jollity and pre-payday anticipation. You’re right to be excited. You can make a genuine difference in animals’ and peoples’ lives – what a wonderful privilege.
However, you will know from your time in practice that not all vets are smiley 24/7. Life in practice can be hard.
So how can you set off on the right foot in your career? How can you help yourself to settle in, be respected by clients, feel like you are making good clinical decisions and, consequently, get some much-needed sleep at night?
1. Trust that what you know is appropriate
You don’t have all the answers, but you do know enough to do the job well. Trust yourself whilst remaining humble about gaps in your knowledge.
Simple things can outfox you – getting the drug out of the bottle and into the syringe for example! There’s a skill to everything, no question is stupid – find a non-judgemental colleague and ask.
It’s common to feel like others know more than you – and there’s nothing like an experienced exotics owner or an over-confident farmer to exacerbate this. Panic not – you know lots – and the things you don’t know you can learn. Most practices have a stash of good books, online searches can be very helpful if you pick reputable sites and there are lots of clinical apps nowadays including Veterinary CPD.
2. Establish mutual respect with clients
You don’t have to be the world’s greatest on day one to win the respect of clients. It will feel like it some days though. Try to let prejudiced comments from ill-informed clients wash over you. Discrimination – agism, sexism, to list from personal experience – does happen, but for every ignorant client, there are many understanding and reasonable ones. If you don’t know the answers, say so, most clients will respect your honesty far more than any ‘gallant’ attempt to fudge it.
The best way to earn respect is by showing it in return. Be empathetic. Even simple clinical decisions can affect your client – emotionally and/or financially.
Be understanding. Maybe the poorly cared-for elderly cat is ignored because the owner is also caring for a mother with dementia or a disabled child. No this isn’t OK and yes, it’s your job to educate, but do so respectfully.
Try and listen to what your clients are saying. We all make assumptions, but if a client is offering you information, work with it as best you can. Clients have the best chance of seeing the full picture – it’s our job to encourage useful information to the fore.
3. Common things are common
We all tend to look for the exciting, remember the unusual, and focus on the rare. But, by far the most usual outcome in general practice (the most commonplace for us to start our lives as vets), is that the clinical signs you are seeing represent the top diagnosis for that presentation.
With this, however, comes the caveat that exceptions do happen. Uncommon is not impossible. If something seems amiss, go back to your knowledge of anatomy and physiology, think it through logically, and perform tests that are relevant to helping the animal.
4. The diagnosis is not the priority
The way we are taught veterinary medicine is often diagnosis centric. Whilst this can help focus the mind as to the next steps, it can blinker our awareness of what is best for the patient.
Other factors can help (or cloud) our clinical decision making, but the absolute priority is always animal welfare.
When working up a case, don’t go too crazy trying to think of a list of differentials. Some clinical presentations don’t fit an expected disease profile. Think which test will help you decide on appropriate therapy, and improve the animal’s life, rather than which test will tell you the absolute final diagnosis.
You may decide not to echocardiograph a senior cat with a new heart murmur that currently has no other signs of heart disease. To do so because the cat resents handling and would be impossible to medicate is perfectly valid. If the owner is fully informed, you have explained the potential for disease and its likely progression, and the requirement to euthanise if the quality of life deteriorates, then this is a welfare-orientated way to practice.
5. Celebrate your wins
There are good and bad days on the job. Some days you feel unstoppable – patients do well against the odds, you help an animal that has been struggling under the watch of senior colleagues for weeks, and you get a heartfelt thank you from a much-liked client. These times are great, and you deserve to enjoy them. Maybe even keep a diary – it helps you recall them when the going is not so good.
Some days in the job are tough. Mistakes can hurt. We take on the grief of the clients, we struggle to watch the welfare-compromising situations some animals endure. The hours can be long, the breaks minimal and the intrusion into other areas of our lives hard to bear. This sounds heavy but it’s vital you know this is normal. There’s a reason vets get stressed.
So, celebrate the wins – make a point of it – because having these fresh in your memory will keep you balanced on the bad days.
You are already a highly skilled and knowledgeable individual who completely deserves every letter after your name. You have everything you need to do well in your chosen field – and for lecture notes, apps and textbooks to be part of your armoury is healthy and normal.
Trust yourself; extend respect to clients; remember common things are common; make patients the priority. When you do well write it down, share it with friends and reward yourself. These five tips can help you to feel settled, welcomed, and competent in your new role.