An open letter from a disillusioned veterinary school graduate

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An open letter from a disillusioned veterinary school graduate

While the financial problems plaguing veterinary education may hog the spotlight, this young veterinarian says it’s time to talk about the other issues—those that occur behind closed doors and within closed minds—that are making students sour.
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May 26, 2017
By dvm360.com staff

Isaeva Anna/Shutterstock.comRecently I had an interesting conversation with a technician at work. She's bright, motivated, diligent and interested. She wanted to be a veterinarian when she was younger, but those dreams went by the wayside due to life circumstances and finances. Her father asked her if, since she's now working in a veterinary hospital, her old desires had been rekindled. Did she still want to be a vet?

"I think you would make a good veterinarian," I told her. "But I don't think you should go to vet school." The other recent grad and the fourth-year extern standing nearby immediately echoed my sentiments.

Why did we offer this advice? And why are veterinary students so unhappy? Why do they suffer from anxiety and depression at alarming rates? It's a multifaceted problem, but everything boils down to incredible anger about our experience in vet school.

Anger because we worked hard with little reward. Anger because we had to sacrifice our hobbies, social lives and emotional well-being to study, do grunt work and write volumes of paperwork no one would ever read.

Anger because we were at times mistreated, yelled at and punished for things we didn't do.

Anger because we were bombarded by statistics and articles that say vets are overpopulated, vets make salaries that are not consummate with the time and tuition they put out, vets are to blame for killing animals or practicing pseudoscience and are crucified on social media—with career- and life-ruining effects.

Anger because we watched animals suffer and die needlessly, were witness to errors we didn't have the power to fix and slogged on daily through injustice and mismanagement.

Anger because of the cumulative effects of massive, unrelenting stress.

It's true that veterinary medicine attracts type A people—the overachievers and the perfectionists. But I'm not referring to stress from internally driven motivators. There's a prevailing attitude in veterinary medicine that people need to "put in their time"—work like a dog for years, suffer, slave away, and slowly crawl to the top of the pile through copious blood, sweat and tears. I disagree.

This field needs collaboration, camaraderie and healthy competition. Instead, it has backstabbing, gossip and cutthroat antagonism. And at the university, I saw efforts to sabotage careers out of personal vendettas. I saw great attempts to discredit and embarrass clinicians in front of their students and peers. I saw patient care go by the wayside, a casualty of intra- and interdepartmental quarrels. And I saw—and even received—unjustified, over-the-top criticisms and punishments in order for someone to maintain a façade of undeserved authority.

At school I also had to follow orders I didn't agree with. On one occasion, I took part in a euthanasia for an ailment with a treatable solution, though the client hadn’t been apprised of this fact because the head clinician refused to acknowledge its possibility. Those of us in the opposing camp were vindicated—too late—at necropsy. Obedience and fear of consequences kept our mouths shut. But such cases continue to haunt me.

I can't wave a magic wand and make the outlook better for graduating vets. But I can offer some guidelines to serve as counterpoints to some of the negative behaviors I observed as a clinical student.

Be realistic. If the head clinician is overwhelmed, the house officers probably are, too, and the students are probably running around like maniacs trying to keep the whole thing afloat. Each person should try to recognize when someone is in over their head and help out accordingly. There were many times when I witnessed technicians sitting around gossiping or snacking while students juggled menial patient care and other pressing responsibilities—or when senior clinicians vanished to an office hideout while underlings were left to clean up messes, both literal and figurative.

Furthermore, 15-hour days, five days a week, plus emergency shifts, nighttime patient medication and walking, and weekend care just isn't sustainable for a student who's also trying to study for a block exam, prepare for boards, take care of responsibilities at home, read up on upcoming cases, finish paperwork and more.

Be respectful. The Golden Rule still applies, even behind closed doors when superiors aren't watching. I've witnessed some utterly heinous behavior from respected "professionals," directed both at students and at fellow doctors. This is demeaning, stress-inducing and morale-killing. It seriously contributes to workplace dissatisfaction, which leads to further pent-up anger, tensions, inefficiency and ultimately bad service for animals and clients.

Be receptive. Sometimes good ideas come from unexpected places. Sometimes clients can diagnose their pets before the doctor can, because they know the animal better. Sometimes students are armed with more up-to-date knowledge on their cases than the clinician, since the classes are fresher in their brains or because they took the time to comb through PubMed looking for a solution. Don't discount these ideas just because they didn't come from an "expert."

Be relevant. I've seen bad or outdated science touted as unquestionable fact. We must grow and change with the times. Universities should be at the forefront of medical progress, not stuck in the Stone Age out of stubbornness and reliance on "tradition." We have to challenge our dearly held beliefs daily if we hope to grow, remain current and be good doctors. Our patients and clients deserve nothing less.

There are certainly some excellent individuals serving as clinicians and teachers at universities. I hope these people who still value teaching high-quality medicine and the pursuit of scientific knowledge will remain in academia so future students can benefit from their knowledge and altruism.

This is how dialogue in the veterinary community ought to work. Please don't forget this.

 

Sincerely,

A Young Veterinarian

 

 

 

Leadership sessions at CVC

If anyone was left

If anyone was left questioning why so many veterinarians are disillusioned and depressed, look no further than this comment section. Feeling depressed? Worry not, strangers over the internet will tell you exactly what you should do to fix all the problems in your life!

Highlights include:
- “I would not be surprised if this is a female because I have seen similar complaints from other females who operate on the basis of emotion.” - drtom
- “I could go off on you millennials." "You've got a lot to learn young lady.” – drkelly
- “Exercise. Learn to work hard.” - DocSara

Don’t be a woman. Don’t be born after 1990. Rub some dirt on it and walk it off. The disturbing nature of some of these comments will not soon leave me. You don’t have to agree with the article but the blatant rudeness and disrespect for another human being is disgusting.

It is my sincere hope that no one struggling with their life or career will come across this comment section or, god forbid, these people in real life. And if the author ever reads this – try your best to ignore those miserable commenters that are living in either ignorance or denial. Keep your head up and do whatever you need to do to stay sane.

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thanks

As the author of this article, I had to admit that I was taken aback and honestly hurt by the comments from people who know nothing about me, yet did not hesitate to made (ludicrous) assumptions to allow them to denigrate me and my generation. Some of it may stem from miscommunication (I posted a standalone comment last night, containing the unedited version of my open letter, which hopefully clarifies some viewpoints, rather than painting me as the whiny millennial they so desperately want me to be), but a lot of it just proves my point that there is a lot of rank nastiness in veterinary medicine. Colleague to colleague, thank you for standing up against it.

Touché

Ageism, sexism, misogyny - what's new? I guess the best revenge is that (in Australia, at least) 80% or so of vet students are female and have been for the last 13 years (at least). Unfortunately, most practice principals are still male and as a result female vets, from new graduates up are still paid far less than their male counterparts. I do not know of a single male in my graduation year who started at the base hourly rate (which is pretty disgustingly low I must say). Surveys tell us that male graduates are routinely offered higher rates of pay (they don't even have to ask for it!) while females almost invariably are not.

DrKelly, DrTom and DocSara - you just sound old and miserable. Perhaps retirement should be in your plans sooner rather than later.

A disillusioned graduate

The article is from a disillusioned veterinary school graduate who states that there is so much "Anger because of the cumulative effects of massive, unrelenting stress."

I could not believe the content of this opinion. Normally, I would not even be reading it because I am not a veterinarian. But I am a 65 year old medical doctor who has successfully practiced for many years with no quality issues who saw it as a result of being interested in the Michigan complaint process involving Dr. Jan Pol, a truly superb clinician who uses tried and true principles and operates in a cost-effective manner. It is an outrage that he had to defend himself against veterinarians who were upset that he did not wear sterile gloves or put a heating pad in a cage. Talk about COMPLETELY missing the issues surrounding accurate and proper patient care!

This is what happens with this disillusioned vet. "At school I also had to follow orders I didn't agree with." You want to know what stress is? Try training and working on human beings where ONE avoidable mistake can crater your operation. What is a vet student doing thinking that he knows better than very experienced doctors? And what could be the case that is anywhere near what many human beings have? Why didn't he have the communication abilities to prove his case instead of just complaining?

His (???) complaint is nothing more than a hysterical emotional mess by someone who does NOT belong there. I would not be surprised if this is a female because I have seen similar complaints from other females who operate on the basis of emotion. I have absolutely nothing against females, of course; I judge people on the basis of their performance, not what sex they happen to be.

Does anyone think that there is a place for a medical doctor who falls apart when the going gets tough? Or one who is rendered to tears from "perceived" injustices? Is it REALLY always someone else's fault? Was the school experience really as she describes in the next paragraph OR is this a screenplay for a fictionalized movie?

"This field needs collaboration, camaraderie and healthy competition. Instead, it has backstabbing, gossip and cutthroat antagonism. And at the university, I saw efforts to sabotage careers out of personal vendettas. I saw great attempts to discredit and embarrass clinicians in front of their students and peers. I saw patient care go by the wayside, a casualty of intra- and interdepartmental quarrels. And I saw—and even received—unjustified, over-the-top criticisms and punishments in order for someone to maintain a façade of undeserved authority."

WHEW! Nothing personal of course, but human patients generally do better when their doctor is rigorous and does not fall apart. One who does NOT let emotions interfere with the correct things to do. The real world is not perfect, but when put in the ultimate position of being responsible for the lives of human beings (who although animals are not held to the same life and death standards as pets) doctors cannot afford to be allowed to make avoidable mistakes.

Go do something that you can do where you fit in (if you can find it). You will never fit in as a veterinarian.

can't teach the unteachable

Normally I would try to post some sort of just, verbose, well-reasoned, persuasive essay in defense of myself, my colleagues, and my profession. But I can't see the point in wasting the keystrokes on someone so committed to an opinion of ignorance. So I'll just say: Your assumptions could not be further from the truth, your world view is vastly outdated, and for those points, I am grateful.

Clearly DrTom your conceit

Clearly DrTom your conceit that no veterinary case could ever be as complex as that in human medicine (and hence the implication that vets must therefore be far less skilled than human doctors) clearly demonstrates your lack of understanding as to what constitutes veterinary practice in 2017.

I am yet to see a general medical practitioner who has the skill to perform a splenectomy or intestinal excision and anastomosis, or even the bread and butter of veterinary practice the ovariohysterectomy. When was the last time a general practitioner had to care for a road accident victim from initial assessment, through diagnostics and onto treatment and orthopaedic and/or soft tissue surgery. Everyday generalist veterinarians successfully perform procedures where one avoidable mistake could result in the death of the patient and we carry the resultant stress that arises from such responsibility. You clearly value human life over all other species and therefore believe that the loss of a human patient is both more significant and traumatic than the death of an animal patient, but we veterinarians do not. We feel it keenly if a patient dies in our care, whether it was avoidable or not, and the clients for whom these animals are not merely chattel but loved members of their family feel it intensely. Hence things like using the safest anaesthetic drugs and procedures, performing surgery using sterile instruments and as aseptically as possible, ensuring the patient is kept warm and free of pain pre and post operatively and providing the best follow up care is extremely important to us, both as professionals who take pride in our work and as people with empathy towards animals and the people who love them. So when we see a member of our profession who is practicing with 19th century standards in the 21st century we take exception to it, as I hope the human medical profession would do in similar circumstances. In medical cases we use the same diagnostics you do, we frequently care for patients with multiple pathologies and the complexity that entails. There is no universal health care coverage for animals like we (thankfully) have for humans in Australia. We often have to do the best we can with what the client can afford and frequently have to deal with the heartbreak of a client opting for euthanasia because treatment is just beyond them. We don't always have the luxury of referral to specialists either because of location or client finances, so we have to figure things out for ourselves, which we often do with stunning success. Until you have walked a day in the shoes of a veterinarian you have no idea of the challenges and stress we are exposed to, or the amazing breadth of knowledge that is required to practice our profession.

And stop beating up on young people, it just makes you seem old and miserable.

Broken?

Mixed comments on this post. I can see from all angles. Is our profession broken?

Not Broken

No the profession is not broken, but there are a great many practitioners who are.