Ian Neville writes from the UK
The relentless commodification of veterinary healthcare in the UK is becoming ever clearer, as existing large, corporate practice groups coalesce or are acquired by multinational private equity firms. The days of local, privately owned practice seem inevitably to be drawing to a close. Business has seen an opportunity for profit in veterinary care; though investors, it seems to me, will not be concerned with equitable service provision as long as healthy profits are forthcoming from the efforts of already hard-pressed staff.
In October Goddard Veterinary Group, the UK’s largest ‘family’-owned practice, was acquired by VetPartners. Goddard’s has been steadily expanding in and around London for the last 69 years, such that it now owns three hospitals and 44 other sites employing 450 staff, including 102 vets and 116 registered veterinary nurses. Principal Philip Goddard acknowledged that ‘consolidation of the market’ was a major driver in the decision to relinquish control. In mid-November Goddard Group was advertising vacancies for 23 vets and 20 nurses in permanent roles. VetPartners was only founded in 2015 but already owns 160 practices employing over 6,000 people across 600 sites; it also has interests in pet cremation services, online retailing, veterinary nursing schools, laboratories and a locum agency in the UK, besides expanding into Germany, Italy and France. VetPartners itself was bought by British private equity firm BC Capital in 2018 for £720 million (A$1.275 billion).
CVC Capital (another multinational private equity firm) has announced that it expects to buy out the large Medivet group (already partly owned by Inflexion Private Equity) by the end of this year. The deal is thought to be worth over £1 billion (A$1.7 billion). Medivet has been around for 34 years and currently owns over 350 sites in the UK and Europe besides its own laboratory service. CVC has other service-based healthcare businesses across Europe and described Medivet as ‘a fast growing and attractive business.’ In 2020 Corporate Financier magazine ranked Medivet ninth of the UK’s the top ten most acquisitive companies. IVC Evidencia (another veterinary corporate) and VetPartners were ranked first and second in that list!
Autumn has seen the first signs of veterinary activity slowly beginning to return to normal following the pandemic. Daily Covid case rates remain stubbornly high (30-40,000 in mid-November), but the UK has so far managed to avoid another national lockdown. On 21st November, the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS) called a halt to its temporary dispensation permitting remote prescribing, which has allowed vets to prescribe without making a physical examination since early in 2020. The move was widely welcomed during the period when face-to-face contact with clients and patients was extremely difficult. The return to pre-pandemic prescribing rules has been welcomed by some, including the British Veterinary Association (BVA), as a restoration of good standards, but criticised by others, such as the PDSA pet charity who fear that withdrawing remote prescribing will make it harder for them to meet the growing demand for charitable treatment and harm, rather than benefit animal welfare.
November also saw the first large UK veterinary conference return in physical form after 21 months. The London Vet Show was held over 11-12th November at the ExCel centre in London’s Docklands. The conference offered twenty-one lecture streams delivered by 200 speakers for vets, nurses and managers ranging across pet, equine, farm, business, and career aspects of the profession plus an extensive commercial exhibition featuring over 400 exhibitors. It was also the first opportunity for colleagues to socialise en massesince before the pandemic.
The problem of staff shortages continues to occupy the profession. The situation for veterinary nurses was made clear in the recent VN Futures Interim Report 2021, a joint venture between the RCVS and the British Veterinary Nursing Association (BVNA) representing 5 years of research into veterinary nursing. It found widespread dissatisfaction with low pay, poor work-life balance, being undervalued, a poor/no career structure, unsocial hours and chronic stress. In fact 24.8 per cent of the surveyed VNs said they intended to leave the veterinary sector within the next five years. The increase in VN registrations seen over recent years (from 13,678 in 2016 to 20,000 now) will be wiped out by the forecast attrition.
The BVA’s newly installed president, Justine Shotton, observed that the opening of new vet schools will not in itself address the workforce shortage if the retention of existing graduates is not confronted. Three new veterinary training establishments have recently opened in the UK (in Lancashire, Staffordshire and Scotland) but when the BVA questioned vets in spring 2021, though 40 per cent of vets described their workplace environment as ‘very good’ a further 10 per cent felt it was ‘not good’. The BVA’s strategy to address retention is a voluntary Good Veterinary Workplaces code which it is hoped can offer support, recognition, fairness, and clear career progression to enhance the working environment and ultimately aid retention.
RCVS Chief Executive Lizzie Lockett also agreed that merely increasing graduate numbers was not going to be sufficient to redress the workforce shortfall, but she revealed that the RCVS was in discussions with European Union vet schools which are over producing graduates with a view to supplying vets to the UK. She also said that the RCVS was in the process of trawling its database in search of non-practising or retired members who might be persuaded to return to the clinical workforce for short spells. Both initiatives will be considered during the upcoming RCVS Workforce Summit scheduled for the end of November in an attempt to begin addressing staffing shortages.