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Proposed changes to the Veterinary Nursing Qualifications - how will it affect you?

Posted in Our Community @ Oct 8th 2015 - By Harrie Phillips, Veterinary Nurse Solutions
Proposed Changes To Veterinary Nursing Qualifications Blog

This post first appeared on LinkedIn Pulse 6.10.2015

Every few years, qualifications within our training package are reviewed to ensure they still meet industry requirements and reflect current practice and boring bits like legislation.

The review process is quite lengthy and part of it is industry and public consultation. Currently the veterinary nursing qualifications are undergoing review and are open for public and industry consultation. Full information on this process and the suggested changes can be found on the Agriskills website (these are the people responsible for administering the Animal Care & Management training package that vet nursing falls under). I won't bore you with all the nitty gritty.

There are however some proposed changes that, in my opinion can dramatically affect both students and veterinary clinics in relation to student vet nurses. Unless you are savvy to the whole training package review process, you are unlikely to hear about these changes until it's too late.

To ensure you are all informed, I'll summarise the ones that I think may cause the biggest issues, and if you agree with me, I urge you to provide your own feedback to Agrifoods (details on how to do this are at the end of this post) so we can see some positive changes.

Cert IV in Veterinary Nursing

Currently, the ACM40412 Cert IV in Veterinary Nursing is available as direct entry. This means there are no pre-requisites - anyone with an interest and passion for veterinary nursing can enrol. This has its benefits - nurses already in practice can start their qualification when it suits them, regardless of past study history. It also means that any prospective students (those changing careers, school leavers, etc) can just enrol. Of course, you do need clinic contact to complete the course, but there are no minimums stated other than you need access to a vet clinic. Many providers will have their own restrictions on who can and can't enrol, which is an individual training provider preference and is in addition to the training package requirements.

The proposal is that to enrol in the ACM40415 Cert IV in Veterinary Nursing (the new qual) you must hold a ACM20110 Cert II in Animal Studies first, and that you must either be employed at, or have pre-arranged placement in, a veterinary clinic.

Good, I hear you say! But let's just stop and think about what those two requirements actually mean.

It means that all Cert IV students MUST complete an ACM20110 Cert II first before they are eligible for Cert IV. This includes nurses already employed in a veterinary clinic, regardless of how much experience they have. Sure, you can enrol in Cert II and gain the qualification via Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL), but there is added cost and time to do this, and will it really add to your knowledge base, or enhance your ability to work as a Veterinary Nurse? What about those nurses that hold an older Cert IV qualification and want to upgrade to the newest – for instance to meet Diploma level entry requirements? They too, would also have to complete an ACM20110 Cert II in Animal Studies first, before being allowed entry to the Cert IV to upgrade from their old qualification. If you had completed an older Cert II, you would also be ineligible – you would have to upgrade the Cert II first, before being allowed to enrol in the Cert IV.

If a student is studying, or has completed a Cert III in Animal Studies, they will have to go back and complete a Cert II before being able to continue their career and enrol in the Cert IV. This seems quite unfair to those students who have gone straight into Cert III to better enhance their career prospects and contrary to the Federal Government’s push for Certificate III to be the base level qualification for the Australian workforce to make Australia competitive on a global scale.

What would make more sense in my opinion, if we were to have a pre-requisite qualification, it would be 'either a Cert II or III in Animal Studies’ or a 'minimum of a Cert II in Animal Studies'. This of course wouldn't help those experienced vet nurses who want to gain a qualification, they'd still have to complete the lower qualification first - so is having a pre-requisite qualification what we really want as an industry? Should the Cert IV stay as direct entry? Or the words ‘…or higher’ be added to cover those looking to upgrade?

Now, the requirement to be employed or have a placement pre-arranged, is not a bad one!

I'm sure you all have been inundated with requests for placement for student vet nurses. As an industry, we can only support a certain number of student vet nurses at any one time. As an Educator it is quite heartbreaking when we get a student who is desperate to be a vet nurse and shows tremendous promise in their work, but is unable to get placement because there are just no spare spots in their local clinics. This is why ACVN has always highly recommended that students wishing to complete the Cert IV with placement, have it arranged prior to enrolment. We often feel their pain as much as they do when they cannot find placement. So in principle, I completely agree with adding in this pre-requisite.

It is also proposed to include a minimum amount of 800 contact hours in a clinic for a qualification to be issued.

Currently it is up to the training provider to set what they think is an appropriate length for students to gain experience and have the opportunity to demonstrate competency. For some providers, this is only 480 hours of experience to be logged by a student - this is the equivalent of just 3 months full time. If you think it's possible to master vet nursing practical tasks in the equivalent of three months full time, you probably aren’t a vet or vet nurse! However, as an experienced vet nurse myself, I know there is no way I could learn and master the practical aspects of vet nursing in just 12 week of contact. This is why ACVN placement students have always had to complete over 1100 hours of placement in clinic - we want to produce graduates that not only meet, but surpass industry expectations of a newly qualified VN, and have the equivalent experience of a part time employed student nurse.

The new qualification is specifically stating “Candidates must have access to a veterinary practice for the duration of the qualification study period either through employment or work placement for a total of at least 800 hours completed over a maximum of two years.” As you can see from what we already do at ACVN, I completely agree with having a specific requirement for a minimum number of hours to achieve, it is after all, what our industry expects.

What I don’t agree with is the ‘maximum of two years’. This is because some students will need a little more flexibility in how they do their hours. What if a student became ill and could not complete the 800 hours in the 2-year period, or became pregnant and needed extra enrolment time? Would all their hard work be for nothing because a qualification could not be issued unless their 800 hours fell within a two year period?

What would have more sense is having a minimum time period to ensure longer exposure to the industry, and a fair upper time frame limit. After all, who wants to employ a new grad VN who took 8 years to do their 800 hours? That’s only an average of two and a half weeks a year. I think 800 hours over a minimum of 12 months, and a maximum of 3 years is much fairer and allows some flexibility for students and training providers delivering the course.

To sum it up for the Cert IV in Veterinary Nursing entry requirements, if there was to be an entry pre-requisite imposed on students, then it should state a ‘minimum of a Cert II or III in Animal Studies’. There should be a fair minimum and maximum time period to complete the 800 hours in.

Diploma of Veterinary Nursing – Entry Requirements

There are currently four Diploma level qualifications all designed to enable veterinary nurses to expand their skills and knowledge and provide greater assistance to veterinarians. These are:

  • Surgical,
  • Emergency and Critical Care,
  • Dental, and
  • The new General Practice.

The current entry requirement for all the Diplomas of Veterinary Nursing is that the student must hold the 19 core units of the current Cert IV, and they are proposing to keep this requirement. This means, if you qualified pre 2010/11 you have to upgrade your Cert IV first before being allowed to enrol in the Diploma. This means added cost (often in the thousands) and time for the student for probably very little gain in skill or knowledge. Most nurses use RPL to upgrade, so there is no new knowledge transfer. And let’s not get started on affordability for vet nurses…. (Don’t get me wrong, as a business owner I want you to spend more money with us, but as someone passionate about enhancing the education for all veterinary nurses, I want it accessible and affordable).

This pre-requisite has seen Diploma enrolments dramatically decline, especially in the more restricted Surgical, Dental and ECC Diplomas.

Is this what we want as an industry? Do we only want higher level qualifications available to the minority of nurses?

This move also seems to lack the foresight for professional growth toward a recognised profession. If as a industry we wish to see veterinary nursing become a recognised profession in the future and even be regulated – why are we actively restricting the ability of our workforce to upskill to Diploma level? It is recognised that to aim towards being a registered profession, a minimum of a Diploma level education is required as the base level (look at the UK system as a great example of this).

I think the entry requirements for the Diplomas should be the 10 level four units (ACMVET401A to ACMVET410A) as these form the key vet nursing skills that the Diploma builds upon. This then lets experienced vet nurses meet the entry requirements more easily (and for less cost) without diluting the quality and expected knowledge going into the Diploma.

If you have a nurse in a larger GP veterinary clinic that works in surgery all day – why should they not be allowed to do the Diploma of Veterinary Nursing (Surgical)? Sure they may need some work experience at specialist referral centre to cover aspects such as neurosurgical nursing, but why restrict a qualification that can immensely benefit the wider veterinary industry by having more highly skilled surgical nurses out there? Granted, students will need access to an extensive surgical caseload to meet the qualifications requirements and not all clinics could provide this, but this should not be restricted to only those nurses who work with a registered veterinary specialist surgeon.

The same argument was made a few years ago for the Dental diploma – you had to have access to a registered Dental specialist (of which there is just a handful in Australia). This meant the qualification always had very low enrolment numbers and was not available to nurses with an interest in dentistry. The requirement was changed to also allow those working with vets who were at minimum Members of the Veterinary Dental Chapter, Australia and New Zealand College of Veterinary Scientists.

Perhaps we should be proposing something similar for the Surgical Diploma? Or open it up further with the expectation that for smaller clinics, students will have to complete work experience at a referral or specialist centre, but won’t have to have that contact arranged for the entire 2 years (which is what is being proposed). They just need enough to cover the gaps their clinic cannot provide.

It would not be feasible for many students to work full time in their own clinic, study at Diploma level, and perform work experience regularly for two years.

After all, the skills and knowledge gained in the Diploma will benefit their smaller clinic through improved nursing practices, and the industry as a whole.

Surely as a career that is begging for better recognition, respect and professional acceptance we should be working toward demonstrating that our workforce deserves said respect, responsibility and recognition. 

This needs to be achieved through professional level education that supports our whole workforce, not just those in the select few high-end specialty services around Australia. Lets have the vision to see beyond our current status quo and aim for success of our future profession. Should we not be aiming for Diploma level qualifications and specialisation availability to all nurses?

Units of Competency

It’s not just the proposed changes to the qualification structure that can affect you. It is also the changes made to the individual units of competency that make up the qualifications.

For instance, lets look at ACMVET407A Carry out Medical Nursing Routines.

Did you know that the way this unit is currently worded means that all students must be assessed on setting up and maintaining a laparoscope? Yes, a laparoscope. Ignoring the fact this is a surgical piece of equipment, how many clinics have laparoscopes? Not many. But the wording means, as a training provider, we must assess you on it, which means it is likely that you won't be able to complete this section of your training in your clinic. Inconvenient huh?

I was excited to see in the proposed changes to this unit that laparoscope has been dropped (Thank you!) However, some of the new additions to this unit are probably just as unrealistic.

Look at this excerpt from the Performance Evidence (fancy words for things we must assess a student on for competency)-

“prepare for and assist the veterinarian as directed in medical procedures including:

  • ear cleaning
  • urinary catheterisation
  • enemas
  • biopsies
  • tracheal wash
  • abdominocentesis
  • intra-articular joint injection
  • and/or cropways/feeding”

You might read that list and think, yeah it would be nice for nurses to be able to do all those things. I agree! But I read this list (as an Educator who is audited by more anally retentive people than I am) and see the word “including” – this means we have to assess each and every student on each and every thing listed. If it said “such as” or “may include”, we could pick some or other more suitable tasks and assess students on that instead, enabling greater flexibility in assessment.

When was the last time a vet nurse in a smaller clinic assisted a vet with a tracheal wash? I was only ever involved in three of these when I was clinically nursing and that was in a specialist centre (and one was my own dog). As an industry, do we expect every qualified nurse to know how to set up for and assist with a tracheal wash? Ear cleaning - sure, enemas – definitely (sorry nurses), urinary catheterisation- in a perfect world yes.

This is where wording becomes very important, and as an industry when we are asked for our opinions on our training package, we need to be realistic and a little bit anal. Perhaps this list should have a list of 'must' and a list of 'may'?

The new medical nursing unit will also require all student nurses to be assessed on fluid pumps. As someone who advocates for gold standard, I have no problem with this. But if you are a smaller clinic or rural, and rely on gravity drip sets only – you will either have to purchase a fluid pump (they are not that expensive you know), borrow or hire one, or send your student nurse to another clinic to complete this aspect. Oh, and you will also have to have your student nurses assessed on administering blood products too, both gravity fed and with a pump.

The final piece I want to draw your attention to is this “Assessment must cover a minimum of one species from at least two of the six major animal groups (mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish and invertebrates)”. Wider skill transference is ideal, yes. But if the majority of our clinics only see mammals and rarely other critters, how many students will struggle to complete some assessment tasks? They might scrape their 800 hours in two years in, but still not qualify because they didn’t see enough birds, snakes or fish to complete all the assessment tasks. Remember it was one species from at least two of the animal groups, so dogs, cats, horses, rabbits and rodents only count for one animal group - mammals.

Also, adding in much stricter and specific assessment criteria that increases how much assessment needs to take place per unit will ultimately increase course costs to the student and time needed to complete assessments. It won’t necessarily increase the quality of assessment, in fact it might decrease it as overloaded assessors try to meet assessment KPIs.

However, as an assessor, I am looking forward to watching a practical skill assessment video where a student is performing an enema on a hermit crab to cover their two animal groups. Should make for entertaining assessing.

All I can ask here, is: as an industry, please please read the wording of the units of competency closely (I’ve only discussed one, and there are 23 that make up the qualification), and think, what is a realistic expectation of a qualified veterinary nurse in relation to this skill?

Go and provide feedback on this to Agriskills. We want the majority of nurses to be able to complete the qualification in their own clinic for everyone’s convenience.

The more “including” with no flexibility, the more we have to assess, and the more expensive a qualification will become. Not that I am saying remove skills, just keep it realistic!

Providing feedback

Ok, so whether you agree with every point I have raised or not, it is very important that Agrifoods receives as much feedback from industry as possible to ensure that the qualifications and units really do reflect what YOU want in your qualified vet nurses.

I implore you to think about the implications on students as well as clinics and provide your feedback to Agrifoods before the cut off of 15th October 2015. I know you are all really busy people, so I have prepared a letter that you can edit to suit your opinion and forward to the powers that be. Feel free to add in any other feedback you wish to provide.

To download the letter, please click here

Once downloaded, edit with your comments and then forward via email to mjackson@allevents.com.au | or fax to 02 9460 2696 before 15th October 2015.

If you have any questions you would like to ask Harrie, please add them in to the comments section below

Harrie Phillips is the founder of Veterinary Nurse Solutions and the Australian College of Veterinary Nursing. She is an Australian Veterinary Nurse as well as a UK registered veterinary nurse and she completed her Diploma of Veterinary Nursing (Surgical) in 2009, and her Diploma of Veterinary Nursing (Emergency & Critical Care) in 2012. Harrie has worked in a variety of clinics from general practice, emergency and critical care, specialist centres and in universities.  She also has qualifications in management, human resources, training & assessment, and vocational education course development/design. 

Comments

lisa blair @ Oct 18th 2015 7:58am
Hey Judy, can you please pass on to Harrie my thanks for the article? It is both exciting and motivating to read from someone so obviously passionate about both what she does and on the needs of her profession..and mentoring and building a future for those that come after her. All strength to her arm!
Judy @ Oct 18th 2015 11:21am
Thanks Lisa - I'll make sure Harrie sees your comment :)

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