The vets that keep working through a global emergency
When you think of key medical workers, your mind probably turns to doctors, nurses and paramedics, and rightly so. They are at the front line of the situation we find ourselves in - a worldwide pandemic, with a dramatic impact on us all, the full extent of which will not be known for a long time. Our NHS staff are the heroes of this catastrophe, and we must never forget it.
However, in the world of veterinary medicine, we are still practising. Our veterinary surgeons and nurses are still working, from farm animal practitioners keeping our food supply chain strong, to experts in small animal and equine medicine looking after much-loved family pets and working horses.
Veterinarians and veterinary nurses are bound by an oath of ethics, much like human medicine’s Hippocratic oath. The Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS) oath, signed at registration as a practitioner, states ‘ABOVE ALL, my constant endeavour will be to ensure the health and welfare of animals committed to my care’. As such, our vets and vet nurses keep working, fair weather or foul.
The Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies (R(D)SVS) is home to three hospitals and three general practices. We have some of the most advanced facilities and specialised staff in Scotland, our clinics treat both first-opinion customers and those referred by their vets owing to complexity of diagnosis or treatment. We also educate veterinary undergraduate students in our clinics and hospitals. Our responsibility to our community, especially now, is enormous.
To maintain services during the pandemic, Dr Sue Murphy, Director of Clinical Services and Director of the Hospital for Small Animals, has worked with teams across the hospitals and practices to establish working patterns that will keep staff, students, clients and the animals in our care safe. As a first principle, hospital staff are split into teams whose paths do not cross, so that if one team goes down with illness, the others are not affected. At all of our hospitals and practices, clients must declare any symptoms before booking an appointment, and ensure that our vets have no contact with anyone experiencing Coronavirus symptoms. The RCVS released its guidelines a few days after ours were put in place, and our practices were aligned with what was advised.
Fortunately, previous planning for a hard Brexit had included conserving stocks of crucial items, such as particular painkillers and other essentials. We also have contingency plans for situations such as severe weather and have been able to apply these to the pandemic scenario.
Our Farm Animal Hospital and Practice are at the forefront of essential veterinary service during the pandemic. Farm vets are busiest during spring, when new life abounds, and lambing and calving must go on. Livestock in need of treatment must receive it. The food supply chain relies upon our staff, who work tirelessly to ensure the wellbeing of the animals in their care and support the local farming community. An essential service for farm animal vets is not dissimilar to full service, owing to the critical nature of their work, but loss of staff because of childcare needs amid school closures makes this all the more challenging, when the food supply chain is already overstretched.
Our farm animal vets are mobile, travelling to cases in order to consult. They visit the Practice only to collect medicines and supplies. Our Director of Farm Animal Services, Professor Alastair Macrae, works carefully with our vets to establish working methods that protect their wellbeing and that of our clients and patients. He updates staff each day to ensure a consistent approach. Professor Macrae also leads our Dairy Herd Health Scheme, which continues to support dairy farmers in herd maintaining the health of their animals.
At the Hospital for Small Animals, home to the Dick Vet General Practice, we are prioritising the most essential cases. Clients must phone ahead before visiting, and where possible will be seen in the car park. Reception staff are working at a distance, and clinical staff work in shift groups designed to ensure minimum contact between individuals. Hygiene remains a priority in all areas.
At the Equine General Practice, home visits are carried out where possible and only for emergency cases or those crucial to animal wellbeing. At the Equine Hospital, a similar shift pattern to that at the Hospital for Small Animals keeps staff grouped into fixed teams with no transfers, and our Equine Hospital Director Dr Patrick Pollock emails key information to staff each evening.
Our stores must, where possible, be used to support human healthcare at the front line. Much of the equipment in our hospitals is equivalent or identical to that used in human hospitals. The Hospital for Small Animals has loaned four ventilator machines – designed for human use and kept under hospital conditions – to Lothian Health Board to treat patients with severe viral symptoms. We have also been able to donate some 450 surgical masks and sets of surgical scrubs to medical facilities in need.
We are also providing a free telemedicine service to referring vets, enabling them to seek consultation on complex cases without risking their own health, or that of their clients, and travelling only when it is essential.
We will continue to adapt to a changing landscape, and this brings some challenges. We are adapting to new ways of working. We are adapting to staff being unavailable owing to childcare needs, being at higher risk of infection, or self-isolating. We are also adapting following the donations and loans we’ve given to the NHS. We are making sure we are compliant with RCVS guidelines in all we do.
We are working around the clock to deliver emergency services to animals in need, despite COVID-19. During this challenging time, we remain steadfast in our commitment to our patients, to our clients, our referring vets and to our staff.
About the Royal Dick School of Veterinary Studies
The Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies is a one-of-a-kind centre of excellence in clinical activity, teaching and research. Our purpose-built campus, set against the backdrop of the beautiful Pentland Hills Regional Park, is home to more than eight hundred staff and almost fourteen hundred students, all of whom contribute to our exceptional community ethos.
The School comprises:
- The Roslin Institute
- The Global Academy of Agriculture and Food Security
- The Roslin Innovation Centre
- The Hospital for Small Animals
- Equine Veterinary Services
- Farm Animal Services
- Easter Bush Pathology
- The Jeanne Marchig International Centre for Animal Welfare Education
We represent the largest concentration of animal science related expertise in Europe, impacting local, regional, national and international communities in terms of economic growth, the provision of clinical services and the advancement of scientific knowledge.