Don’t write the single rural practice off yet, says Walwa vet David Hall. In fact, he warns, “if we keep talking like it’s dying, we will cause its demise.”
He was referring to a previous article I wrote (‘Solving the crisis in rural practice’ The Veterinarian, August 2007), in which comments were made, such as “the one or two man veterinary practice has a very uncertain future”, and “single vet practices are going to slowly disappear over the next 10 or so years”.
The consensus of the vets surveyed was that larger, consolidated practices were the only way to provide adequate services to rural clients and ensure that practitioners had enough opportunities to develop their skills, gain further education and adequate professional support, and enjoy “reasonable hours and lifestyle”.
“Unfortunately, the demise of single vet practices in small towns will mean that some towns will be left without a full-time vet practice,” Scott Parry predicted.
Hall is an example of a single practitioner who loves the rural life and can’t think of anything better to be doing with his life. When I spoke to him on a chilly early spring morning, he was lyrical about working and living in Walwa, a township of about 80 people in the alpine area of the upper reaches of the Murray River.
His practice sits equally in NSW and Victoria, divided by the river, and stretches over a radius of about 150 kilometres in various directions into the mountains and valleys surrounding the town. Overlooked by the main range of the Victorian Alps and adjacent national parks, the area is very picturesque.
“It’s a glorious day,” he told me. “This job is great. I get to drive around the countryside every day. Other vets who decry the single rural practice talk about ‘lifestyle’. Well, this is my lifestyle. What do they want? You have to decide what you want to do.”
He established Walwa Vet practice in 1991, servicing a void he identified at the outreaches of neighbouring practices. The practice mainly services beef cattle breeders, ranging from 300 – 1,000 cow herds. Approximately 25,000 cows are pregnancy tested annually. There is also significant equine component, owing partly to the tradition of mustering on horseback, but also because the area is home to a diversity of people riding and breeding horses for pleasure.
A small number of dairy clients farm the more fertile valleys of the alpine region. Sheep are generally a minor secondary enterprise, he says, although there a few flocks of up to 8,000 head.
Being the only vet, he is also responsible for and “treasures” the small animal work. His main canine patients are working dogs, but there are also family pets, mostly fox terriers and toys. Nor do the professional challenges stop with dogs. Exotics include camels, alpacas, water buffalo, American bison, ferrets, rabbits and guinea pigs. Even poultry and native animals are occasional patients.
He hasn’t always been a lone rural vet. After graduating in 1978, Hall worked in practices in North East Victoria, then for the Victorian Department of Agriculture as District Veterinary Officer, spent some time on the Arabian Gulf with the Ministry of Agriculture in the Sultanate of Oman, before working in city small animal practices across Melbourne. He has also visited veterinary development projects in the countries of East Africa. “So I have experienced some of the other options that are out there,” he remarks.
Hall lives on the practice premises, with his teenage son and daughter. His office administrator and receptionist Suzie Vinge works four days a week and vet nurse and surgical assistant Jacqui Lattenstein comes in one day a week. “I have the easy role,” he says. “I’m just the vet! The most administration I do is sign cheques and check accounts. A laptop computer is heavily employed, but I never touch it. I do what I am best at doing, veterinary practice.”
Living on the premises, he says “contrary to popular opinion, is easier for balancing work and home life, caring for hospitalised small animals and horses, and after hours calls.”
Professional activities include hosting veterinary students from Charles Sturt University (CSU), medical students on rural rotation with Walwa Bush Nursing Centre, and assisting with the development of the veterinary scene in East Timor. He gets a lot of pleasure from mentoring and encouraging young professionals, and hopes he can give them a positive understanding of life in a rural practice.
Recreational interests are not neglected in this busy life. They include horse riding, motorcycling, world movies, community radio and a 150 hectare beef cattle property adjacent to the National Park. Referring to comments made by other vets in the previous article, he says firmly, “My social life is as active as I could want.
“I am never short of things to do, and I have as much money as I need. George Bernard Shaw said something along the lines of ‘The easiest way to be happy is to keep busy; you don’t have time to wonder whether or not you are’.”
Not that it’s not stressful, being on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. He agrees there are downsides to being the lone vet. “Yes, fewer holidays, being on call 24 hours, seven days a week. “But my clients are good. They don’t call me at night unless it’s urgent.” What about professional isolation? ” Other vets are only a phone call away.” And, as we have seen, he has plenty of professional interaction.
“The key to a vet practice is not about avoiding stress,” he says. “It’s how you deal with it. I have learnt to cope by realising that overall I enjoy the lifestyle, that I am privileged to be doing what I like, and with the good stuff comes the bad. I try not to blame. I tell myself that I have chosen this vocation and it is what I am and do. When I want a change I can create it, and someone else will carry on after me, and enjoy it as I have. I try to view myself as a servant of the farming community, and a passenger of the day.”
Hall has been a vet for almost 30 years, and says that being a rural vet is much easier than when he first graduated. “Over the 29 years I have been involved in rural veterinary practice, mainly in North East Victoria, the job has become easier. Every day I think of my first boss, Bruce Maclean, who died in 1991. Bruce and his widow, Mary, were the first vets in the area in the 1950s. In those days stock management was poor, as were yards and the roads. These pioneers really did it tough, and they educated clients, making the working life of my generation much smoother.”
He lists improvements in stock management, such as tighter calving patterns and the development of performance recording, creating more predictable calving ease and more defined premium end products. Property sizes have increased, with fewer farmers, and increased productivity.Farmers have become much more educated in all aspects. Cattle handling facilities have become safer and more efficient.
A strong believer in the role of the small rural vet practice, he says rural (and single or two person) veterinary practice should not be viewed as second rate by the universities or the profession. He quotes a CSU lecturer being asked by a lecturer from a city university how it felt to receive the city course’s ‘rejects’. “Our hackles rose.”
He sees the rural vet as being much more than “farm consultants”. “Within my practice, each enterprise is refreshingly unique. Profit is not necessarily the driving force. This should be kept in mind with the fashion within the profession towards viewing veterinarians as farm consultants. Sometimes it is better to listen and empathise, than advise. As respected professionals, we are in a privileged position to be able to view the full tapestry of a rural community, in technicolour!
“There seems to be a growing perception that rural practitioners should become consultants, and that the days of individual animal treatment are over. I think this is a dangerous idea. There will always be a farmer desire, at least in intensively managed enterprises, for rectification of individual problems, so long as the economics average in their favour. This is where smaller, widely dispersed practices, or manned branch practices, can provide a better service, with regular short visits. Advice can be given in small packages.
“From a bio security perspective, there is coincidental on property surveillance. On the other hand, pregnancy testing and bull soundness examination provide opportunities for an overview of the whole herd.
“So rural vetting is about balance: between the technical and academic, the holistic and the specific, the client and the enterprise, the farm and the district, self-interest and altruism, reaction and proaction.”
Mentoring young professionals
Veterinary students from CSU’s Wagga Wagga campus are regular visitors to Hall’s practice, “and they are all beaut,” he says. Second-year students get to spend one or two days at a time with him, and third-years get a whole week, learning large animal work. He is optimistic about the future of rural practice since the establishment of the Schools of Rural Veterinary Science at Wagga Wagga and Townsville. Most of the students are from rural backgrounds, often from government schools, and with some experience with rural vets, “so they understand rural communities and enterprises and have chosen a course which will train them to service them.”
“The physical demand of large animal practice – especially cattle pregnancy and dystocias – should not be underestimated by new graduates,” he warns. “But they will not need to exercise to keep fit!”
It’s not only Australian vet students who benefit from Hall’s mentoring. Since Steve Dunn alerted Australian vets to the struggle faced by the East Timorese veterinary profession, Hall has taken a keen interest in the country. The practice hosted East Timorese vet Dr. Feliciano Da Conceicao in 2005, and in July this year Hall spent time in the country. He plans to return there next year, passing on skills to the young vets.
Dave Hall with East Timorese vet, Feliciano Da Conceicao on the Walwa property
“I enjoy the lively and enquiring minds of the students and the young Timorese vets,” he says. “The CSU students universally enjoy the variety of work and the outdoor environment experienced through Walwa Vet Practice. I hold great hope for this new generation of rural vets.”
While the small one or two-person practice might not offer ‘gold standard’ equipment and the latest surgical techniqes, he says it allows graduates to develop a range of skills across the full breadth of veterinary science in a way they might not get at multi-person practice..
“One can learn to utilise the most important diagnostic tools of all – eyes, nose, ears, hands and brain. One can tackle a vast array of medical and surgical cases without the pressure to refer to specialists, because country clients will often not take up that option. One can learn to improvise and think laterally and still achieve excellent results. There is an opportunity to diagnose disease on a herd and district level, and to promote prevention measures. One can experience the pleasure of being a highly valued member of a community, and a coal-face worker for the rural industries.”
All part of the work: removing a bull’s claw.
Golden rules for young rural vets
Strive for humility; avoid arrogance.
Be honest with yourself; learn by your mistakes.
Put yourself in the position of the client; serve the client and patient.
Think laterally; learn to improvise.
Do your best with the situation at hand.
Be the passenger when the day is not driving as you want.
Practice observing yourself; don’t take yourself too seriously.
Knowledge is not so much about what you know, as it is knowing who to ask.
Be proud of your profession, and grateful to be a member.
You are not God’s gift to the rural community; it is God’s gift to you.