David Main is Professor of Animal Welfare at Bristol Veterinary School. His research interests are welfare assessment, intervention strategies to improve welfare and animal welfare education. He is a former member of the Farm Animal Welfare Council, and current member of Soil Association Council. He is project co-ordinator of the AssureWel project; a collaboration with RSPCA and Soil Association, that aims to embed welfare outcomes into the assurance process of certification schemes.
He was principle investigator for the Healthy Feet project that has been widely adopted by the dairy industry and he is also part of the EU WelNet project that is a network of welfare scientists providing welfare advice to the European Commission.
The recent survey from the Vet Futures project shows that the public place a high degree of trust in the veterinary profession. Despite this encouraging assessment I will argue in this article that the profession should work harder to deliver on a societal expectation for us to be animal welfare advocates and that it ought to introduce safeguards against profit-seeking influences on our clinical decisions.
Profession urgently needs to deliver on society’s expectation as animal welfare advocates
Individual clinicians would be well justified to say that their daily ambition in veterinary practice is to promote the interests of animals in their care. However, a minimal scratch below the surface reveals obvious tensions in this well-intentioned mantra within the profession.
At an organisational level, the BVA can be applauded for campaigning for stunning at slaughter. However, this campaign is relatively uncontroversial as it does not conflict with the interests of clients of many BVA members. Could you imagine the BVA launching a public campaign encouraging the pig industry to change its husbandry system in order to reduce the need for tail docking in pigs or improving the prevention and treatment of lameness of dairy cows? It requires strong leadership for the profession to discuss issues that raise difficulties for clients that pay the practice bills. Hopefully discussion around the BVA Animal Welfare Strategy will focus our attention on such issues.
Veterinarians could perhaps also do more at an individual level to act as animal welfare advocates. It is easy to inform clients on the technical rationale for a specific husbandry change but then walk away knowing full well the client will not action the advice. In the medical profession, advanced communication techniques are becoming more widely adopted to promote positive change within their patients. Perhaps we should be more explicit in teaching our veterinary students influencing skills.
Advocacy requires us to promote our patient’s rather than our client’s interests at both an organisation and individual clinician level.
Profession ought to introduce safeguards preventing inappropriate profit-seeking behaviour
Whilst the profession is clearly focused on our client’s interests, widespread profit seeking behaviour amongst clinicians is unlikely. Clients are likely to avoid veterinary surgeons that they perceive to be focused on performing unnecessary expensive treatments. Furthermore, you do not talk need to talk to many veterinary clinicians to realise that money is rarely a primary driver.
I have also argued previously that offering the best veterinary treatments from the animal’s point of view is very often the most profitable for the practice. In practice I suggest that many veterinarians fail to offer the best treatment as they are overly worried about the financial impact on the owner. Since it is not our role to make judgments on how our clients should spend their money, our default position should be to offer the best treatment option. However, we should be careful to avoid causing guilt amongst owners that are not able to afford the treatment. Concentrating on the animal’s interest need not conflict with a legitimate need to operate a profitable veterinary business.
However, perceptions as well as reality matters amongst our clients and society. The obvious difference between the business structure of veterinary and medical practitioners in the UK means the profession will always be at risk of challenge for excessive profiteering. Since we still live in the age of the media scare story it would seem prudent for the profession to embed some anti-profit seeking safeguards in our regulatory controls before, rather than after, a problem is highlighted.
A potential safeguard could be a prohibition within the RCVS Practice Standards Scheme of crude turnover-based incentives. Salary based on performance, of course, is a legitimate management tool, but incentives could be based on health outcomes rather than simply selling more stuff. A debate at a practice or national level on the nature of these safeguards could be a healthy demonstration of the profession’s desire to act as animal advocates.