A vet in a political world

Photo of Ele Brown
Ele Brown

With a cup of tea and slice of cake in hand, and between work to support EU Exit plans, devise sampling plans for disease investigations and develop a deployment plan for vaccination, I take a 10 minute break: The policy is changing it seems like we should be specialists on the outside advising in, and on reflection my veterinary degree was perfect training for becoming a policy maker.

Making decisions on available evidence

We are trained at vet school to make decisions based on available evidence, but with the understanding that that evidence is often scant. We come to diagnoses using that limited evidence, perhaps pulling in evidence from other species, or situations that best fit. Similarly, we can prescribe medicines that might not be licenced in that species by making judgements based on our understanding of how that drug works and our primary knowledge of the animals and disease we are applying it to.

Policy making is the same. We never have all the evidence. Ministers need to make decisions on ways forward with incomplete information: policy makers make recommendations based on what is known, what works in other areas and the balance of risk and benefit. The evidence we draw on is diverse: legal, social and economic as well as the more obvious veterinary and scientific evidence.

Policy is only ever evidence-based: a common misunderstanding is that policy should replicate the evidence but of course it can’t. It is and should be a practical implementation of the science and not a scientific study in itself. That is also true for veterinary practice: it’s evidence-based but not all treatments are scientific studies. We’re pragmatists: we learn by doing. Of course we should review our cases and reflect on patient improvement, whether treatment is being administered as we’d hope and the animal patient is recovering as we (and the owner) would like. The exact same evaluation process is needed for policy making.

Was Fluffy taking her pills?

I remember a particular Saturday morning consultation when I was in practice asking an owner if Fluffy the cat had taken her tablets. I was doing a recheck (I forget the exact condition) but Fluffy was not improving and I wanted to understand why. The owner nodded emphatically that the cat had taken her tablets. However behind the owner was the owner’s house keeper. At the same time as the owner nodded vigorously, the house keeper shook her head, with as much vigour and honesty. I had to come to a conclusion on what the owner thought was happening was indeed happening, and if not, why not?

The same “process evaluation” helps us evaluate policy albeit on a much larger scale: are the control measures being implemented as we think they are being, or is the farmer, at the bottom of on often long line of communications from the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, to Animal & Plant Health Agency (APHA), to the Veterinary Office and private vet on the ground, not actually doing what we think and hope they are? And, if not, why not?

This latter work crosses over with social research, which is another area vets need to be mindful of (all vet students are reminded that “every animal has an owner attached”).

In addition to making and evaluating policy, I hope that our training enables us to lead teams, cope with flux in workloads and triage our work priorities.

People might not see me as a proper vet anymore, but in my mind I’m still striving to ensure “the health and welfare of animals committed to my care”, just at the national level.

If you are at all interested in coming to shadow a vet in APHA we are always keen to take people in and show them our work. Please do contact us and we’ll do our best to accommodate you.

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