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Change is high on the agenda of new AVA president Dr Diana Barker, who wants to create a groundswell for a cultural shift within the profession—one practice at a time. By John Burfitt
With her appointment as the new president of the Australian Veterinary Association, Dr Diana Barker has leapt at the opportunity to apply what she’s learnt as a practice owner to the industry overall.
When she bought her first veterinary practice in 2014, Dr Barker knew measures needed to be taken to create a better workplace for the vets, nurses and support staff she employed. So, she implemented a range of changes to clinic conditions and work schedules, as well as introduced mental health support services.
Over the coming years as her Evervet business expanded across Melbourne to include four practices, she instigated the same changes in each new clinic, determined to create workplaces her staff enjoyed working in. The process sparked an awareness of the wider state of the profession.
“I began by thinking I would change things clinic by clinic, but then realised there was much to do overall, and I would need to go bigger,” Dr Barker recalls.
“That was the point at which I could see there were a lot of things not going right in our profession, and wondered what I could do to help out. As I had seen real changes within our own Evervet practices, I thought I might be able to help on a bigger scale if I got more involved.”
Dr Barker joined the AVA board in 2021, and only a few months ago in late August, was elected president.
In her first message in that role to the AVA membership, she made it clear change is high on her agenda. She wrote, “One of our core values is ‘adaptability … and we embrace change and innovation,” later concluding, “The AVA has outgrown the ‘how things used to be’ model. We can’t go backward—we need to adhere to our core values and adapt to the changing CPD and workforce environment.”
Dr Barker uses the word ‘adaptability’ frequently as she discusses her AVA role, and outlook on the profession she has been part of since graduating from the University of Sydney in 2002. Her husband Dr Theo Lynch was a fellow student, and the couple today work together in the Evervet clinics.
“With all that has happened in recent years, the AVA needs to adapt and be agile, but coming in to the AVA, I realised how challenging it is to do that as there are a bunch of organisational processes to go through to get to the end result. And I think some people get frustrated with that, so we need to find a way to move faster.”
She’s wasted little time since taking charge, with a major review of the AVA constitution already underway, with areas including governance and membership groups currently being examined by a special panel.
The matter of AVA membership is a major preoccupation of Dr Barker, who estimates only 60 per cent of Australian vets are currently members. “I want to make membership more appealing, and we have a target to get that number to 100 per cent so we can represent the entire workforce, to make an impact in areas they need us to.”
Making sure the organisation appeals to the new breed of vets coming through the ranks is paramount. “The AVA is a broad church and we’re seeing generational change,” she says. “We need to recognise the future of our profession is in younger generations, where there’s also a majority of female veterinarians, and we need them to be involved so we continue evolving.”
Other issues of special focus in Dr Barker’s quest to set the AVA up as a powerful advocate for the future include addressing the skills shortage, mental health support and the availability of continuing professional development.
According to Animal Emergency Australia, there are only enough veterinarians to meet 60 per cent of the current demand, and Dr Barker calls this “the big issue”.
She says the advocacy work by the AVA in collaboration with other organisations and the federal government to address this shortage has been ramped up.
“We are looking into action plans for the short, medium and long terms, and exploring how to get more migrant vets into Australia to meet the demand. We are doing a lot of work with the AVBC (Australasian Veterinary Boards Council) on competencies in terms of registration. All of that can be complicated, but I think we are making inroads.”
In 2021, the AVA released the Veterinary Wellness Project SuperFriend report, which stated 66 per cent of vets had suffered mental health issues in the previous 12 months—a figure five per cent higher than the general Australian population.
Studies differ but it’s also been estimated that vets are up to four times more likely to die by suicide than the general population, so mental health support is another key target.
A year ago, the AVA launched THRIVE, a veterinary wellness initiative with the aim of supporting veterinarians and veterinary staff in their careers. This includes the formation of a Wellness Steering Group, the development of an industry-specific mental health framework and suicide prevention strategy, a Wellness Roundtable and the recently-launched VET2VET peer support program.
“We have thrown all our resources behind THRIVE and will continue to do so,” Dr Barker says. “This is the biggest action the AVA has taken in a long time and while it might take a while to show results, we need to start to get to the other side of it.”
Considering the major impact CPD has had on her own career, it’s no surprise Dr Barker is a passionate proponent for advances in veterinary education.
“Completing CPD keeps you motivated, because as you learn new strategies and processes, it inspires you to expand your skills set,” she says, adding that the new generations coming into the veterinary landscape place real value on ongoing CPD.
“Younger vets, by and large, want to embrace whatever new learnings are available, and so it’s important for the AVA to keep inspiring our members in whatever ways we can.”
It has been CPD, Dr Barker admits, that has kept her in the profession, especially through the times when she thought it was time to depart.
“During those times when I felt I didn’t want to do this anymore, it was by putting myself into a learning role and challenging myself to learn new skills that kept me going,” she says.
With the growth in her business, Dr Barker has enhanced her professional skills by completing a number of business courses over the past decade, culminating in an MBA at Monash University.
“I’m one of those people who always thought I needed a certificate on the wall to state, ‘Yes, you can do this’,” she says. “While I went into the MBA thinking I needed better business knowledge, what I got out of it was so much more in terms of confidence.
“I learned how to back myself in business decisions, and to change my mindset of feeling there’s better people to do the job, and instead advocate for myself and what I want to achieve. In fact, it was the MBA that gave me the confidence to go for the board role with the AVA.”
As for the future, Dr Barker reveals she is keeping a notebook close by, and whenever she thinks of new plans for the AVA, she jots down her ideas.
“Having things front of mind means I will do everything I can to action them and push the things that are important,” she says. “So I’m keeping it with me all the time, and doing my best to keep myself accountable in the process. I’m going to push on with it as we have a lot to get done.”