Jacqui Molyneux always wanted to be a vet. “I honestly can’t remember wanting to do anything else,” she recalls.
She is in many ways not the stereotype of a veterinarian. Jacqui is a chatty, warm woman who runs her own small animal hospital (that is, a practice that deals with small animals) in the North East.
“When I was a child my father had a small holding and I had horses, until I discovered boys!” she says.
“We had pigs, chickens and things like that. I came from a very working class background and I won a scholarship to a local private school under the old direct grant system. When I first went there I said I wanted to be a vet and they laughed at me and said ‘don’t be silly girls don’t become vets’. That was like a red rag to a bull.”
She graduated from the University of Bristol in 1981 and started her career in small animal practice in Liverpool, before moving to the North East, and setting up her own practice between Newcastle and Durham.
“I have a small animal hospital which now has five vets,” she tells Central Lobby.
The male dominated James Herriot days are long gone and the male/female ratio in the profession now tips the other way.
“The average intake in vet schools is now around three quarters female. A gender imbalance either way has its own problems,” Jacqui says.
After 31 years in the profession, Jacqui is the current President of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, and has a full agenda of legislative matters to deal with in her term of office.
The new Defra team will need to get to grips with two main issues – amending the disciplinary regime for vets and the registration of veterinary nurses.
As a statutory regulator, the RCVS undertakes the responsibilities set out in the Veterinary Surgeons Act 1966 - to maintain a register of veterinary surgeons eligible to practise in the UK; to set standards of veterinary education and to regulate professional conduct.
“That is becoming restrictive, quite apart from the fact that it is now thought that is not the best way of doing things because the same group of people responsible for setting the rules judge when the rules are broken as well.”
A Legislative Reform Order (LRO) is being sought to modernise the process.
“We have brought lay people in informally but one of the reasons for the LRO is to make that formal.
“With Disciplinary Committee hearings, we are finding that because cases are becoming a lot longer it is actually becoming difficult for people to find enough time to sit, if you have a case that takes two weeks and you are trying to run a practice.
“We actually struggle to find enough people. If we have a case referred now it will not be heard until next July. Under the LRO we would have a bigger pool and could have more frequent hearings.”
The lay people bring a different perspective of disciplinary proceedings, Jacqui explains.
“It is interesting that you get an issue and the vets think it is terrible and the lay people think that is not so bad and you get the opposite as well.”
Veterinary nurse training has now been in place for more than 50 years, and the profession has developed considerably over time.
“At the moment we have a list of veterinary nurses which is a recognition of the fact they have been trained and then they were allowed to do certain things under schedule 3 (of the 1966 Act).
“It allows people with recognised qualifications to perform minor procedures and medical treatments. In practice at the moment they tend to do things like put animals on drips give medications assist with anaesthesia. In 2007 a register was introduced, which meant that nurses agreed to be disciplined and abide by the code of professional conduct.”
Nurses who are on the register agree to abide to the code of conduct, the list, however is only a recognition of their qualifications. This means that whilst the College can strike a veterinary nurse off the register for misconduct, the College has no power to remove them from the list. Therefore a nurse found guilty of misconduct could continue to undertake minor surgery and other activities outlined in Schedule 3 of the Veterinary Surgeons Act.
Jacqui is confident that Government can find a solution to the regulation of veterinary nurses without the need for a big, hefty piece of legislation.
So what makes a good vet? Jacqui says that while “you obviously need a certain amount of intelligence because there is a huge amount of material that needs to be taken in, but you need to have empathy with people and communicate with people and enjoy working with people and animals”.
Communication skills are top of the list of requirements, and at times the profession attracts candidates “who want to work with animals, but do not particularly like people which is not a good thing!”
“We have put a huge amount of emphasis as a profession on improving people’s communication skills, as have medics I believe,” she adds.
A large proportion of complaints about vets received by the RCVS are as a result of poor communication with animal owners.
“We get between 700 and 800 complaints a year but only 2 – 3% end up in a Disciplinary Hearing. This is not because we are letting them all off, it is because in a huge number of cases the vet has not done anything wrong, it is the way they communicated it. It is also because we have little or no power to investigate some of the areas complained about, for example, fees or negligence.
While she is heavily involved in the day-to-day operations of RCVS, Jacqui is still a working vet and as such understands the effects of poorly-drafted legislation.
The Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 has been widely criticised by animal welfare groups for its focus on banning specific dog breeds.
Jacqui recalls that at her own practice, lots of dogs “suddenly overnight became Staffordshire bull terrier crosses” to avoid the ban on pit bulls.
“How can you legislate against that? Pit bulls were not a registered breed anyway.
“That is one of the reasons why it was so difficult to police. In my opinion it should be ‘deed not breed’.
“In my practice we go through phases where we know what breed people want to have as ‘status dogs’. We have been through Rottweilers, pit bulls, Dogue de Bordeaux - at the moment it is American bull dogs.
“They are pit bulls, but they are called American bull dogs so they are not covered by the legislation.
“To be honest the majority you come across are nice dogs. I used to have Staffordshire bull terriers and I think it is really sad that Staffies are tarred with the same brush.”
Jacqui says that helping people is as important as helping animals in the veterinary profession.
“Being a vet is also intellectually stimulating, like being a detective. It is interesting the number of vets who say the only other thing they would do is forensics, it seems to appeal to the vet frame of mind.
“It is problem solving incidents; you have to interpret clues and put it all together.”
She explains that “you win or lose most clients when putting an animal to sleep”.
“That might sound a bit perverse but it is a time when you can help people though a really difficult time.”
Jacqui Molyneux intends to emphasise the human touch in veterinary practice during her time as RCVS President.