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A whistle stop tour of VMG/SPVS Congress 2019

By Olly King

Last weekend saw my first attendance at the annual VMG/SPVS congress in Newport, South Wales. New to the VetGrad team, VetGrad/VetBoss founder Thomas Rees packed me off on my first assignment. To make the most of my attendance I had printed the lecture schedule and pre-planned, from all the fantastic sounding content, the lectures I was most interested in.

The conference was filled with delegates attending from over 180 practices, who had come to listen to the 60 guest speakers on offer, as well as to interact with the 80 strong number of exhibitors between talks. The Celtic Manor Hotel venue was a fantastic host venue for the convenience of everything being all under one roof, their fantastic customer service (notably the willingness of the hotel bar staff to keep delegates happily networking into the small hours!) and comfortable facilities.

Congress events began with the cabaret social evening, at the hotel’s golf club house. A relaxed buffet and networking affair ensued before, the Victorian dressed, time travelling magicians Morgan & West dazzled delegates with their card tricks, mind reading prowess and engaging humour. 

Friday morning began for me at the 8am Boehringer ‘business breakfast’. Susan Room, a professional voice and executive coach, welcomed delegates who had made an early rise with a talk on ‘Confident Conversations’. No sooner had I finished the last mouthful of my bacon-butty and she had us all on our feet being mindful of our body language and doing vocal exercises ready for a day of positive, engaging networking.

Next port of call was to the president’s welcome, which included applauding the small handful of practice managers graduating with their certificate in Veterinary Practice Management. Amidst the current climate in the veterinary industry where practice profitability, recruitment and retention in the work force and leadership in the work place are topical discussions, one would think the need and demand for a well-trained practice manager has never been greater.

I would have liked the contribution the practice manager plays in building a positive work place culture and in supporting the clinical team to have been championed far more by the organisers. The practice manager is a career in itself, as exemplified by the achievement of Tracey Morley-Jewkes (the newly, head hunted, hospital director of Willows Vets, Solihull) who lectured later on that day in the ‘New to Management’ lecture stream. I felt that this was a huge missed opportunity to promote the certificate to the audience of independent practice partners and corporate clinical directors who invariably inefficiently multi-task too much practice management duties around their clinical duties.

SPVS president welcomed congress opener Kate Richardson-Walsh OBE (pictured), captain of the Rio 2016 Olympic gold medal winning GB hockey team, to effortlessly captivate her audience talking about the central role that leadership played in the success of her squad. It was impossible to not be in awe of her achievements – particularly for me as an avid hockey player of 30 years and counting. From her thirteen year long career as a leader and specialist in her field she had complete authority to spell out the key ingredients required to nurture a positive work place culture. To get the most of your team, Kate focused on the importance of team members having aligned visions and values, demonstrating behaviours that focused on awareness of self and others and having the awareness to leverage any differences in any team member’s personalities as strengths to facilitate more positive interaction and communication in the work place.

The above concepts are far from new to the world of business, yet the veterinary industry is slow to embrace them into the business of clinical practice. These same themes featured heavily throughout the content presented during the ’Attract and Recruit’ lecture stream that I sat in for the rest of the day. Gordon Dunn, of Pets at Home Vet Group, summarised his experiences of the current recruitment and retention crisis by reflecting on the similar work place culture themes that emerged from the 2014 King’s Fund survey of NHS staff:

‘The business case for leadership and engagement is compelling. Organisations with engaged staff deliver better patient experience, few errors, lower infection and mortality rates, stronger financial management, higher staff morale and motivation and less (staff) turnover, absenteeism and stress’. 

HR expert Simon Shott then took over to explain how, having created a fantastic work place culture that reflects your business values, business ought to then consider building your brand and reputation online as an employee-centered employer to facilitate the attraction and recruitment of staff. With 80% of practices taking longer than three months to recruit, telling your potential workforce how amazing your place of work is would appear to be a logical and proactive step as part of your ongoing recruitment strategy.

These two speakers offered a highly relevant insights into areas of practice that the profession must do better if we want to address the so-called recruitment and retention crisis that headlines veterinary publications week after week. But what I found most insightful was that the lecture hall was barely 30% full. Perhaps this reflected how good the content was in other lecture streams, perhaps the profession not thinking there is a crisis or perhaps the profession continuing to bury its heads in the sand!

Dave Nicol, of VetX, concluded the recruitment stream with an entertaining, insightful and thorough overview of how he meticulously plans, advertises and interviews to ensure both employee and employers needs are met by in a successful appointment process. Dave stressed how costly a bad hire can be – a scenario that is a high risk when such a recruitment process is rushed; and how knowing your work place culture and values will help mitigate this risk through techniques to ensure the applicant’s values are aligned with those of your business.

Where had the time gone?! The evening’s Cuba themed President’s Banquet was fast approaching. My fancy dress efforts extended to a Fidel Castro impersonator, aided by an adhesive beard and moustache, army cap and (of course!) a big fat Cuban cigar. Not widely famed for his musical skills tonight this Fidel was going to be a maraca shaking demon. Thankfully on arrival at the banquet on my own, I was greeted by plenty of other delegates who thought it equally daft to dress up as an ex-Cuban president!

The focus on the second day of lectures that I attended was for strategies to retain your work force. Lynne Gaskarth, from the 2018 well-being award winning Drove Veterinary Hospital, described the importance of providing vets with the opportunity to broaden their role both as a clinician and with awareness of the business side of practice as one way to keep vets engaged in first opinion general practice.

Sally Clark, who runs the IVC academy, echoed this importance of learning and development for all, which has to start with a practice having clear goals and objectives for its services alongside an awareness, of where staff are at on their clinical development journey. Through understanding the business needs and the skills of its employees staff training can be appropriately prioritised helping staff members feel a valued asset to the business.

Again the comparison to human medicine was made, with Joanne Reeve, a Professor of Primary Care Research at Hull University, who brought her experience of the GP retention challenge facing the NHS and as a member of the Vet Futures Graduate Outcomes Working Group. Feeling valued was re-iterated by Joanne and the necessity to feel like you belonged and were a respected member of the business and of a wider community of general practitioners. Giving staff this meaning was important to remind them that what they do matters and that we should move away from any misconception that suggested general practice was inferior and/or not as stimulating as specialist practice.

Drawing the conference to a close I attended Alan Robinson’s, of Vet Dynamics, business insight into the biggest barrier to practice profitability. In contrast to the poorly attended recruitment stream, Alan’s audience was overflowing with delegates – and aptly so, one week ahead of the profit warnings announced this week by CVS! In the current climate, with salaries showing a rising trend, and 55% practices with ’below average or poor’ profits (<12%), business owners must now, more than ever, address the inefficiencies and poor business practices that are driving such a poor bottom line. Alan’s whirlwind lecture delivered some blunt take home messages as to how and why practice’s are struggling. These also included the recurring themes preached throughout the conference of inadequate management and leadership in the work place. It was certainly a convincing pitch for his services being able to improve the profitability of businesses that he sees as being run by altruistic professionals lacking business acumen and the time to do anything about it. Despite Alan’s dismay of veterinary clinical businesses he delivered his hard-hitting messages in a highly amusing and engaging presentation that softened the bluntness of the messages he was delivering.

Time to check-out! All in all, it was a stimulating, informative two-day conference and I cannot highly enough recommend the value of attending this conference for anyone involved or interested in practice management. 

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