Great expectations

Newly appointed NZVA Veterinary Manager (Companion Animals) Lorelle Barrett argues that the profession will need to adapt to changing expectations among veterinarians and the pet-owning public. Naomi Arnold reports.

A veterinarian’s is ever changing, and the best option for survival is to adapt, Lorelle Barrett says. She’s the NZVA’s first Veterinary Manager (Companion Animals), a new role that is designed to provide more support for NZVA members.

“The profession is changing and we need to be proactive in how we deal with that change and support the profession in managing it,” she says.

Indeed, much has changed in the past few years – and not just the latest research findings. Veterinarians are developing different expectations around work-life balance, for one. “And that’s not unreasonable at all,” Lorelle says.

Clients also have different demands from those in the past. “Even since I graduated [in 2003], Dr Google has become a thing,” she says. “Client expectations have changed ... particularly in the companion animal space. Their expectations have moved on, even if their willingness to pay for our services hasn’t.”

Lorelle’s role is similar to that of NZVA’s existing Veterinary Manager (Large Animal) position, held by Ash Keown. It involves Lorelle working closely with Ash and NZVA Chief Veterinary Officer Helen Beattie. She’s working on policy development, looking at progressing animal welfare and animal health.

She’s taking on secretarial duties for the NZVA’s Companion Animal Veterinarians special interest branch. Day to day, she’s addressing member queries if they’re seeking advice or guidance, meeting with external stakeholder groups, meeting internally to figure out policy reviews, strategy and development, and working on the development of the NZVA’s new Member Advisory Group.

Among many other things, Lorelle sees the position as an opportunity to listen to and advocate for her peers. “If members call the office, there is more opportunity for them to talk to another veterinarian, and it will mean better support structures for our special interest branches,” she says. “It also allows more time for us to create, establish and maintain solid working relationships with a lot of our external stakeholder groups. I think overall it’s offering enhanced support for various aspects of the profession.”

Lorelle is a Massey University graduate, and has had a diverse career in veterinary medicine, encompassing clinical work, teaching and research. She spent the first couple of years of her career working in large animal practice, focusing on sheep and beef cattle, working farm dogs and deer. After that she headed to the UK and worked the locum circuit for nearly six years. Like many Kiwi veterinarians who begin their careers in mixed practice in New Zealand, she found that her work in the UK turned out to be predominantly companion animal medicine.

When the Global Financial Crisis hit, things became tighter in the locum market, with fewer long-term jobs on offer. Deciding she couldn’t handle another English winter, she headed back to New Zealand, but found herself at a crossroads.

“I was going on eight years graduated at that stage, and was thinking about what else I might want from the profession,” she says. “I got back to New Zealand and the job market here was really awful.”

She decided to go back to school and enrolled in a Master of Veterinary Science degree at Massey in mid-2011, honing in on animal welfare science as her area of research under animal welfare expert Professor Kevin Stafford and Associate Professor Ngaio Beausoleil. After her master’s, she studied for a PhD at the University of Western Australia in Perth, an “adventure” she describes as “a major rollercoaster, with many highs and lows”.

She put the PhD on hold for a couple of years so she could come back to New Zealand to take on a fixed-term lecturing position with Unitec’s animal care team, and then joined her partner at his Kaitaia mixed animal clinic, getting back into clinical and companion animal practice. She finished her PhD in May, and began her new job with the NZVA in September.

It’s a four-day-a-week role involving Lorelle working from her home base in Kaitaia, where she still spends a day a week keeping her hand in at clinical practice. During the rest of her time outside work, she enjoys walking and soaking up the sunshine at nearby Ninety Mile Beach. With family and friends spread over the world, spending time with them in person or just keeping in touch is also a priority.

She’s expecting the new position to be a good challenge. “There are lots of very different viewpoints, attitudes and beliefs about a lot of the issues we will need to deal with, and lots of challenges in navigating those,” she says. “I’m looking forward to getting my head around it all, and getting a much deeper understanding of the profession at that next level up.”

The role captures all of her skill set. “What drew me to it, outside ticking all those skill boxes, was that I thought it could be really interesting to get a different look at another aspect of the profession,” she says. She’ll also get to understand and think about the long view of animal medicine, in terms of strategic outlook.

“I think this job is a way of really utilising all my clinical and research experience, and I really enjoy the research and writing space,” she says. “But it’s also an opportunity to get involved with supporting the profession and the members and helping move it forward.”

One of those opportunities is helping figure out how veterinarians can cope with change in the coming years. It’s something people will have to learn to do to keep the profession healthy, she says, adding that it’s no secret that retention rates are “not fantastic”.

“I think we need to be open to re-evaluating all our options about how we attract and retain people. If we’re not willing to change, then I think we’re potentially at risk of doing ourselves a disservice,” she says. “So it’s just being open to re-evaluating how we’ve done things in the past and whether that is still reasonable or relevant, and what we can do differently to make the profession a place that people want to be in and want to stay in.”

Another big challenge is client education. Some of the questions she puzzles over are the same ones that every science-based profession is asking as society grows more susceptible to faux information spread by social media that’s ignorant of scientific method, theory and evidence including the world of antivaxxers, anti-1080 conspiracy theorists and climate change deniers.

“I have days when I think, ‘How am I still having to have this conversation?’ On a daily basis, veterinarians are still saying things as fundamental as, ‘Here are all the reasons why you should vaccinate your puppy’. And that’s something that hasn’t really shifted since I graduated, and I’m at a bit of a loss as to why that is. How have we not been effective in really ensuring that message is heard? Why is our message not penetrating? I don’t know what the answers to that are yet. I think we need to improve the way that we deliver those really core messages to the general public.”