News & Press: NZVA news

Getting technical

Tuesday, 6 November 2018  
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VetScript Editor's pick - November 2018

In the US, they’re often considered a veterinarian’s most trusted colleague. Yet in New Zealand, veterinary technologists are far more likely to fly under the radar and potentially go underutilised. Jacqui Gibson reports.

Veterinary Technologists – ‘vet techs’, for short – have been graduating from Massey University’s Bachelor of Veterinary Technology (BVetTech) programme for nearly a decade, at a rate of about 30 per year.

Talk to graduates and they’ll tell you their three-year degree was broad yet rigorous enough to either fast-track their careers or open the door to better-paid specialised roles.
Alianna Munakata, who works at The Unusual Pet Vets in Melbourne, says she landed her dream job working alongside exotic animal veterinarian Shane Simpson in Australia’s Karingal Veterinary Hospital a few months after graduating from Massey in 2015.

“Working with reptiles and exotic animals has always been my passion, and here I am in Shane’s new clinic, which opened a few months ago. I’m the only fulltime veterinary technologist in the clinic.

“I work alongside a veterinary nurse. I do everything from client education to diagnostic testing and preparation, from triage, surgical preparation and assistance to anaesthetic monitoring and hospitalised patient care, and from post-mortem examination to radiographic imaging and blood sampling.”

Alianna helps treat reptiles, small mammals, amphibians, macropods and birds. Every day, she works alongside Shane (known as ‘The Reptile Doctor’ on Facebook) and three other exotic animal veterinarians. To date, Alianna has presented at conferences on the topic of reptile care, and hopes to soon convert her New Zealand qualification to a North American qualification under the US academy system.

“I want to be in a position to sit the American veterinary technology exam. If I pass, I’ll be on the path to becoming a specialist in zoo medicine. I want the US qualification partly because it’s better recognised globally and partly because I want the added skills, knowledge and opportunity to care for non-domestic animals and be their advocate. My current job description says that I’m a veterinary nurse, which is completely fine. But in the longer term, I don’t want to limit my career options because people see me as a veterinary nurse, not a specialist veterinary technologist.”

Massey Programme Director and lecturer Robert Sawicki says there is a need to change how New Zealand law defines the role of veterinary allied professionals. “I’m optimistic that it will happen in the next three to five years, with the Veterinarians Act updated to include all allied professionals, from veterinary technologists and nurses to rural animal technicians and veterinary nursing assistants. It’ll be a win for everyone.”

Currently, the Allied Veterinary Professional Regulatory Council, a working group of the New Zealand Veterinary Nursing Association, is doing the groundwork necessary to amend the law. “They’ve started by developing and instituting a voluntary registration system for allied professionals, which is great. But changing the law will give us the basis for a formal accreditation and registration process, standard setting, a professional code of conduct and so on.  Until then, however, it’s pretty much up to graduates and their employers to work out what title to give veterinary technologists, how best to utilise their skills and how they should operate on a day-to-day basis.”

Abbey Sutherland, who also graduated from Massey’s veterinary technology programme in 2015, says she’s had several roles at home and in Australia since graduation, and has only ever been employed as a veterinary nurse.

“The title doesn’t matter to me. I think the degree-level qualification speaks for itself when it comes to job opportunities. It gets your foot in the door. Then it’s up to you to show your employer what you’ve learned and what you can do.” Abbey says she’s six months into a Melbourne-based role that she’d never have landed without her veterinary technology degree. “I’m working as a surgical nurse for Advanced Vetcare, one of the top specialist practices in the city. They usually employ veterinary nurses with at least five to seven years’ experience, but they were familiar with my qualification, having employed a veterinary technologist in the past. So I immediately got an interview when they saw on my CV I’d graduated from Massey’s degree programme.”

Abbey says she’s one in a team of five veterinary nurses at the practice. Some are more experienced and some less so, but they respect one another equally and, because of that, gel really well. As a team of two surgeons, two interns, five veterinary nurses and one head veterinary nurse they complete up to 14 mostly orthopaedic surgeries per day, of which 90% are carried out on dogs.

“To me, I just feel lucky to have had the break that others have taken years to get. It’s an amazing work environment. The work responsibility is immense. And it’s the full-deal, gold-standard surgical and anaesthetic work. I do see myself with a long-term career here. I love it.

“The surgeons believe in us and trust our capability. The pay is much better than New Zealand. I’m learning so much. To me, getting this opportunity so soon in my career was the main benefit of my Massey degree.”

According to Robert, the BVetTech programme is a competitive one (about 70 people apply every year, with around half accepted) designed to give students a good grounding in veterinary science, as well as a range of critical thinking, research and business skills.

“We’re aiming to turn out students who aren’t just there to complete manual tasks such as basic monitoring, but who understand what to do if something goes wrong and why it’s happening. Whereas veterinary nursing qualifications are geared towards working only with small animals, the veterinary technologist’s qualification focuses in depth on small and production animals, equine and exotics medicine, as well as business.”

Veterinary technology students are required to clock up more than 1,500 hours of contact time in Massey’s production, equine and small animal teaching hospitals and the wildlife-dedicated Wildbase Hospital. They also spend time in Massey’s Pet Emergency Centre and various clinical practices around New Zealand, and learn alongside veterinary science students throughout their degree. In their second year, they work directly with experienced, primary practice and specialist veterinarians, veterinary technologists and veterinary nurses in a clinical setting. Robert says the programme aims to bridge the gap between a qualified veterinarian and a certificate- or diploma-qualified veterinary nurse.

“Legally, only a veterinarian can diagnose, authorise drugs and perform most operations inside a body cavity. A veterinary technologist, however, will be knowledgeable and skilled enough to do all the preparatory and follow-up work surrounding these responsibilities, provided they have the trust of and overall supervision from the veterinarians they work with.”

In fact, Alianna, who started her career path with a veterinary nursing certificate from Otago Polytechnic, is a good case in point. Within 12 months of finishing the veterinary nursing programme she had moved to Palmerston North and was on track to start on her BVetTech degree.

“I really loved the veterinary nursing programme, but I found that what I learned at polytech only scratched the surface of veterinary science. It taught me, for example, what medication I needed to bring for anaesthesia, but I didn’t know why. The veterinary nursing programme didn’t go into enough detail for me. There are a lot of great veterinary nurses out there but I was a little bit different; I wanted a little bit more.”

Alianna says that she didn’t feel confident after the one-year veterinary nursing certificate programme. “After the BVetTech programme I can get chucked into pretty much any situation and I know what to do.”

In other countries, says Robert, veterinary technologists see clients, manage triage, analyse symptoms, compile evidence for diagnosis, and draft and administer veterinarian-approved treatment plans.

“In the production sector, for example, they consult and advise on farm, pregnancy-scan, vaccinate herds and even carry out uncomplicated procedures such as calvings, dehorning and disbudding on farm. We’re seeing more and more of this in advanced New Zealand veterinary practices as well. It’s how New Zealand could structure things to address issues such as veterinarian burnout and the fast rate of veterinarians leaving the industry.
It’s one way the industry could work smarter not harder.”

CeeJay Spiller, who graduated in 2016, says that’s exactly how she works as an anaesthesia technician at the Massey Veterinary Teaching Hospital.

“All my work is overseen by a specialist veterinarian, but I work alongside veterinary nurses and the veterinary technology and veterinary science students who learn within the hospital environment. This role, the career I have, the trust clinicians have in my training and education, it’s incredible. I don’t know if it’s like this for all graduates, but I’m pleased with how it’s worked out for me.”

Scott McDougall is Managing Director of Cognosco, a Waikato-based animal health and production research firm. He employs up to 20 veterinary technicians. Three full-timers work in research, two in large animal clinical roles, and up to 15 casuals work with large animals.
Things run a little differently within his business, he says. “I employed my first veterinary technician in the late 1990s. Depending on the time of year and what they’re tasked with, the on-farm veterinary technicians work without direct veterinary on-site supervision, but follow well-defined procedures.” They don’t, for example, diagnose or vaccinate. But they do make a big difference to the efficiency of the firm, he says. “We’ve been quite conscious about how we use our veterinary technicians.

We’re a dairy-farm-focused business. Our farm clients want to interact with veterinarians. They want the advice and input of experienced veterinarians. And we have to have enough veterinarians to cover that. So, we’ve chosen to use our research team technicians to collect samples, work in the lab and coordinate client work. In the large animal team, under veterinarian supervision, they collect data, handle teat sealants, dehorn and trim hooves.”

Scott says his veterinary technicians have diverse backgrounds. Some have animal science or other degrees, while others come with farm experience but no formal qualifications.

“One of our most recent technicians is a Massey veterinary technology graduate; she runs the research trials from Morrinsville and is a real stand-out. I have to say, we wouldn’t hesitate to employ another Massey graduate based on the standard that she’s set. But probably each employer has to make up their own mind about how they want to utilise both technicians and technologists. There’s not going to be a one size fits all, if our experience is anything to go by.” David Barrowman, a senior companion animal veterinarian at Vetora, says it is probably time for the industry as a whole to start exploring the different roles available in New Zealand to better understand how veterinary technologists might be utilised.

“Until the legislation makes it clear, it’s hard to see exactly how a veterinary nurse differs from a veterinary technician or technologist. For us right now, I’m not sure that it matters.”

David is right: until the legislation clarifies the roles and responsibilities of the two vocations, their differences may not be that obvious to some employers. As a result, they don’t get utilised to their level of training and that’s an excellent reason to change the legislation, says Robert Sawicki.

“At some point – in the not too far future, I hope – we’ll see a shift in how the three positions [veterinary nurses, veterinary technologists and veterinarians] work together on an animal healthcare continuum,” says Robert. “The allied professionals have the skills to do a significant amount of primary healthcare. By entrusting them with these responsibilities, veterinarians will be free to do more consultancy, diagnosing, delegating and internal surgeries. That structure will be a cost-effective way to deliver optimal healthcare to the animals.”

Not all BVetTechs are in the clinic

Former veterinary technology student Samantha Tennent was in Massey University’s first class to graduate in 2011. Since then she’s worked in sales as a farm solutions manager for LIC, a herd improvement and agritechnology cooperative in Waikato. She also spent two years as an agrimedia relationship manager with Stuff’s NZ Farmer publication – another sales and relationship focused role. Today, she is five months into an animal and feed developer role with DairyNZ.

Based in Palmerston North, Samantha’s job is to find out the problems farmers face and link them to the relevant DairyNZ tools and resources. She also coordinates DairyNZ’s InCalf programme, which aims to help dairy farmers improve herd reproduction.

“Overall, I’d say the veterinary technology degree gives you choices. I fell in love with agriculture during my studies, so that’s the path I’ve chosen to go down. But if I think of all my classmates, and where we’ve ended up, the variety of our careers is actually quite incredible.”