Danny Chambers resat his chemistry A-level, resat his first year at vet school and resat exams in every pre-clinical year. He’s now back on the locum circuit having spent the last couple of years working for Langford Vets, University of Bristol. He is an RCVS Councillor, a member of the BVA Policy Committee, a director of Vetlife, writes for New Scientist and does really slow triathlons. Last year he spoke at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival on the use of pseudoscience in veterinary practice.
Tell us about a daily habit or routine you practice that contributes to your productivity and fulfillment?
I am very good at powering through a list of visits or consults and I always seem to have the energy to work late. However, when I’m having non-clinical days that involve sitting in front of a computer writing articles I often struggle to be productive and I feel tired at lot of the time. I think this means that I am better suited to having bite-sized jobs to get through with appointment times to keep, so I need to arrange my non-clinical days to have more structure and lots of mini-deadlines. I work better late at night than early in the morning, and that’s how I used to revise at uni too. Everyone has different body clocks, and you need to know whether you are a lark or an owl, and I’m definitely an owl. Without the wisdom.
What was a major setback that you learnt the most from, or actually turned out to be a success?
I really struggled through pre-clinical years. In hindsight, I believe that having retaken my first year due to family issues, and then having resits every summer of pre-clinical years shaped my personality and gave me grit and resilience which is hugely beneficial now. I had to face the stress of exam failure and progress committee, and there was a real chance that I was going to be thrown out of vet school. I got used to dealing with failure and learned that good enough is good enough, and that although getting distinctions and merits is undoubtedly impressive (and I admire anyone who does), in many ways those who strived for perfectionism and ridiculously high marks had much less fun than I had at uni - I passed my degree, I’m a vet, and I am no less employable as a result. Having failed so many times, it has also meant that I’m willing to give anything a go, because what’s the worst that can happen? If I hadn’t had a few dark years in pre-clinical years I definitely wouldn’t have intercalated as I was looking for a break from the vet course. I ended up doing a MSc infectious disease control which made me aware of the many opportunities outside of veterinary practice. If I hadn’t intercalated I wouldn’t have ended up working on disease control projects in India, Morocco, Iraq and Gambia, and I wouldn’t have been writing articles for New Scientist magazine. So I’m enjoying a more fulfilling career now as a result of me failing and struggling through pre-clinical years.
From a clinical practice point of view, client complaints and RCVS complaints don’t bother me – nothing could be more stressful that sitting in front of progress committee with your future ambitions as a veterinary surgeon in the balance and out of your hands. So ironically although pre-clinical years were some of the toughest and darkest times of my life, in hindsight I wouldn’t change them for the world.
When you start to doubt your own ability, or are having 'a bad day at the office', how do you get back on track?
If I’m having a bad day in practice I just carry on with my next consults or visits. Sometimes things go wrong, sometimes you make mistakes, sometimes someone complains or is ridiculously rude. Just when you think you may as well just give up for the day, the next person is infinitely grateful or you make a brilliant diagnosis or you save a life and you realise that, actually, you are okay at this.
“Success is going from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm.”
Remember the reason that you are feeling stressed- it’s BECAUSE you are a vet, and if your 15 year old self could have known that you’d be standing in the consult room with a stethoscope around your neck they’d be overjoyed that you’d made it! Yes it’s sometimes hard, because any job worth doing is hard. If it were always easy then everyone would be doing it. I would caveat that by saying that if your job is continually awful, stressful and unsupported that’s possibly a reflection on the practice rather than you- as a locum I’ve worked in dozens of practices and some enable you to survive and thrive but others can really drag you down. If you’re continually having bad days in practice to the point where you really don’t enjoy work, try a change of practice before you change careers.
What have you got better at saying no to? How did you realise this and how has it benefitted you?
I am terrible at saying no. I need to work on this. I keep squeezing in extra locum days or weekends on call to help practices out, and I get asked to give talks and speak at conferences that I don’t always have time to adequately prepare for, and that then it becomes stressful and I get exhausted. Being spread too thin and travelling all over the country also means that I go through phases where I struggle to exercise because following a routine is impossible. And regular exercise is important to my wellbeing. I am aware that this year I need to work out my priorities and then focus on doing them well because I need to spend more time on my non-veterinary activities.
If you could gift a book to all vets at graduation, what would it be, and why?
For dealing with clinical practice, I would give ‘Complications’ by Atul Gawande, as I truly believe that new graduates need to be prepared that we all face no-win scenarios in medicine- the difficult diseases or situations you can be dealing with is just a fall of the dice and not a reflection on your abilities as a vet. If human medical professionals with greater budgets and better equipment and larger teams can’t win them all, why do vets in practice with more limited budgets, less equipment and smaller teams put so much pressure on ourselves? In ‘Complications,’ ambiguous and problematic situations arise with alarming frequency. “Last week, I operated on a woman in her forties who had a tumour in her abdomen. We opened her up and found the thing was huge. It had latched onto everything; we couldn’t get it out. So we sewed her back up, and I had to sit down and explain to her that this was, well, it was the end of the line. At the end of this conversation, she just sat there looking at her belly. There was our incision, which had been no good whatsoever. And she asked me, “Did you do that?’ And I said, “Yeah, I did.’ And she said, “It’s beautiful.’”
Everyone is aware of the appalling state of mental health of the veterinary profession, so another book that should be required reading is ‘Happy’ by Derren Brown. Besides being an enjoyable and interesting read, it contains practical advice and evidence-based techniques to maintain a healthy state of mind. Stoicism is hugely important in our profession as it allows you to keep situations in perspective.
Tell us about something you are currently a fan of?
I am obsessed with understanding global and national issues as they really are, not as the media or our preconceptions believe them to be. I love it when my viewpoint or understanding of a subject completely changes. To this end, I was really excited when a book called ‘Factfullness’ by my hero Hans Rosling was published earlier this year. I truly believe that working out how the world actually works enables us to identify problems that can be solved to have the greatest impact. Understanding what factors actually matter and what interventions is actually effective is vitally important to our work as vets in clinical practice, as vets working on Global Health projects and even to our activities in veterinary politics. ”
What purchase of less the £100 has most positively impacted your life in the last 12 months?
I love the Strava app for tracking my exercise… I am intermittently and poorly training for triathlons and I find that tracking my activities motivates me to keep going- I don’t like to see weeks with no activities logged! I track it on a Garmin Watch I bought off eBay, I love it!
What advice would you give veterinary graduates about to begin their careers?
Sometimes horses will kick you, sometimes dogs will bite you, sometimes you will get covered in faeces, and sometimes owners will complain about you. They’re all risks of being a vet, and being complained about is no worse than any of the others. Do what you can to avoid all these things, but if and when they happen they are not a reflection on you as a vet and should in no way affect your confidence or self-esteem.
I would strongly recommend that all new graduates read the collective wisdom of the members of Veterinary Voices UK in this BVA blog - https://www.bva.co.uk/news-campaigns-and-policy/bva-community/bva-blog/what-we-wish-we-had-known-when-we-graduated/
What is the worst bit of advice you hear regularly in our profession? Why do you feel it is bad advice?
I hate this increasing but irrational fear of clients and of litigation that seems be growing among vets. There is a false perception that an RCVS complaint is a huge problem- it’s not. There seems to be a growing perception that we must all practice defensive medicine, offer ‘gold standard’ treatments in every case, that we should focus primarily on avoiding complaints rather than on treating the animal and that we can’t simply just enjoy our jobs because of all these factors. I wish everyone would realise that if you genuinely do your best for the animal and are honest with the owners you will have absolutely nothing to worry about at all.
If you could send a single text to every vet around the world simultaneously, what would it say?
‘People don’t care how much you know, they want to know how much you care.’
My cousin, a human GP, gave me this advice when I graduated. I think this one sentence can replace all communications skills training, and that holding this ethos in the forefront of our minds in every interaction would make everyone phenomenally popular vets and eliminate 90% of complaints.
Have you been inspired by someone in your career? Or know someone in the veterinary profession who has made a positive impact on you?
There are no strict criteria for contributors or mentors, other than that they are positive, supportive members of our profession.
If someone you know springs to mind, or you have any feedback or ideas relating to our Vet Mentors project, please get in touch - firstname.lastname@example.org