Our series on “Champions for Change” will feature people of any gender in any role who are making a difference and creating positive change for women in the veterinary sector – enabling aspirations, inspiring and supporting others to grow and follow their passions, and empowering our community.

Rhian Littlehales is Director of Clinical Governance for Medivet. Rhian’s nomination, from another member of the industry, describes how she is passionate about changing the industry to support veterinary staff from the very start of their careers and how she supports the entire company with training, sharing her knowledge, expertise, skills and care.

Read on to find out more about Rhian’s innovative vision to ensure the veterinary profession is inclusive and accessible to students from all backgrounds, and to help graduates to stay in love with the profession they have worked so hard to join.

Please provide a brief bio/summary of your career story:

I first told my Mum I wanted to be a vet when I was two years old! I came from a non-vet family but did have lots of pets. At secondary school I was the first student to ever want to be a vet, and if it wasn’t for a small group of teachers and my parents, I would not be here.

Rhian Littlehales from Medivet

I worked as a “Saturday girl” in my local practice, and when my first application to vet school was unsuccessful, I began training to be a veterinary nurse. However, I realised quickly that I was only going to be satisfied once I was a vet, and with the support of the practice team and again my parents, I went to Bristol vet school.

I returned to work at the practice I had initially spent time at and was looking at purchasing it after several years of experience when it was sold to a corporate group. I worked as a Clinical Director before moving to become a Regional Director at Medivet. I’ve been here for the last seven years and have progressed through several roles, including Head of Clinical Operations, Head of Graduate Programme and my current role as Director of Clinical Governance.

Please summarise how you are working towards change in the veterinary professions and why do you feel this is important?

I feel that I am making a difference to the profession both inside and outside of Medivet. Indeed, the reason I chose Medivet is because they have always passionately empowered and encouraged me to make positive change.  

My roles have focussed around ensuring vets get the most out of their role. I noticed that we had an opportunity to seize our graduates and make them fall as much in love with the profession as I did.  I spent a lot of time listening to their feedback about their experiences at university, on EMS and on our graduate programme. I made a series of changes that improved our company’s graduate retention from circa 60% to over 90%. We doubled the number of applications received.  Although I am no longer accountable for the graduate programme, I remain involved to ensure it keeps evolving and developing to suit the industry.

Rhian Littlehales from Medivet

I appreciate that as a profession we experience periods of uncertainty- such as the recent impacts of the Under Care Guidance and implementation of the XL Bully ban. My current role in Medivet is to try and be as supportive to clinicians throughout these circumstances as possible- helping them source the very best and most up to date appropriate clinical advice, whilst ensuring they are also aware of the emotional support available to them.

I’ve set up clinical communities and Quality Improvement groups so that anyone in the business, regardless of role or qualification, can feed into our clinical strategy and benefit from the knowledge and experience of others. Medivet has always been a clinically led organisation – but the idea of the initiatives was to make the experience of gaining clinical support more inclusive and engaging.

“I know the support we are providing will help us build a community of diverse and resilient veterinary surgeons.” 

My own vet school experiences meant I felt passionate about widening participation in the veterinary sector. I was deeply saddened to read statistics and social media posts that suggested vets were unhappy with a profession that they have worked so hard to join, and also worried by both anecdotal and statistical evidence to suggest that diversity was a problem within the profession at many levels.

Rhian Littlehales from Medivet

When I saw an opportunity for Medivet to work alongside the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) to support students from all backgrounds to access veterinary education, I saw it as an investment in the professions’ future – the opportunity to make a difference in the wider industry that I love. I’ve worked with the team at UCLan and the Medivet exec (who were equally as inspired by the proposition) to pull together streams of support that truly will make an impact on both the demographics of our profession, and the future of many deserving individuals.

From sponsoring students, supporting university initiatives that reduce the impact of digital poverty of students, providing hardship funds and dedicated communications training throughout the syllabus, I know the support we are providing will help us build a community of diverse and resilient veterinary surgeons.  

How do you feel this is making a difference?

The statistics that we’ve pulled together about graduate retention and engagement have demonstrated to us that the changes we’ve made on the graduate programme have definitively impacted upon our graduate vets.

Our clinical communities drive our clinical decision making – we have strong attendance at meetings and our outputs from the clinical board all come from colleagues in practice, so we ensure we are discussing the things that are relevant and that matter to them. Again, Medivet were as engaged with the idea as I was, and complemented our hub-and-spoke model and desire to ensure clinical work remains at the very heart of the business.

In relation to the UCLan initiative, I am proud to think of, not only the difference we are making at an individual student level, but also when I see the diversity of the student population and compare it to the population that I experienced at university.  When I was involved with the recent admission interviews, I could see that they were taking a very different approach to selection – ensuring that demographic or circumstantial barriers that have denied people the chances of obtaining a veterinary degree are addressed. I am also proud to support a syllabus that is highly practical, with problem-solving skills, growth mindset development and reflectivity at its core.

What motivated you to want to change things?

My experience of getting into vet school and the vet school experience itself were drivers for me to want to make a difference to the vets of tomorrow. I must say, I loved my time at vet school and made friends for life.

Rhian Littlehales from Medivet

However, even before vet schoo,l gaining the relevant animal related experience was challenging. I was lucky that my Mum was a teacher – she taught someone who had gone on to become a practice manager and accepted me for a placement. From there it was about making friends and connections, which was always challenging for a young person with concurrent academic pressure.

The financial impacts of being in vet school had a significant effect on my family. I felt like EMS options were limited because I could not afford to get to placements outside of my local area. Small differences, such as struggles to pay for social events, would often inadvertently single me out. My parents were an enormous support, but it made me realise how difficult this would be for someone who was not fortunate enough to have the close family support or financial means to fund the education I had dreamed about all of my life.

How have you encouraged other people to get on board with your ideas?

The fact that I have real life, lived experiences of some of the problems that I am trying to solve is a big benefit when trying to get people on board. People often have questions, and I am always happy to answer them from either my point of view or by using evidence. It has been enormously helpful that the mental health, early careers behaviour and socioeconomic demographic of the veterinary profession have become interesting topics for research, and so I spend a lot of time reading and gathering facts that support any initiatives I am working on.

At the end of the day, it is just helping people understand the “why” when it comes to change – and for some people the use of storytelling is more powerful than statistics and vice versa, so I tend to use both. I also think it can be helpful to try and tell the story in reverse; explaining what your goal is and how much better this would make things if we got to that place. Have a goal and keep revisiting it and coming back to it- especially if it’s a big one!

What are the biggest challenges you have encountered in this journey and how have you overcome them?

Rhian Littlehales from Medivet

Getting people to believe that change is the right thing to do in the areas above has never been a problem: nobody wants graduates to leave, everyone wants clinicians to have a voice and to be heard, and everyone wants a more sustainable and diverse profession. The most challenging aspect of these pieces of change is helping people realise it is possible to change. Some of the problems are so big and daunting that they feel impossible to fix! It’s often just thought of as an “industry problem” that we have to sit back and accept. But it doesn’t have to be. I am a happy vet and wouldn’t choose any other job – how do we create that environment for others? We all have a role to play in this and small, positive public reflections can have a massive impact.

I’ve found that being persistent (sometimes repetitive), passionate and well read about the matter for change is vital. My other advice is to break big change down into small manageable chunks – they are much more palatable and when you put them all together, much more effective than one daunting “magic bullet” solution that is unlikely to land.

What has most helped and motivated you along the way?

Whatever the change initiative is, I’ve always picked my goal and worked backwards. I then make my decisions based on that goal, asking “Is this going to positively get me to where I want to be?” If not, it’s not a challenge I need to worry about right now.

I also take time to reflect on successes. You occasionally get even a small piece of feedback that reinforces that you are doing the right thing. Take a photo of it, write it down, store it in your email inbox and look at it again when things get tough!

“You can do it if you want it bad enough.”

What is the best advice you’ve been given, or that you would give to someone else, about driving positive change?

You can do it if you want it bad enough.

It is as simple as that. If you believe in the change you are trying to deliver, then absolutely anything is possible. If it doesn’t work the first time, don’t automatically blame the system, look at what else you could try or if you could tweak things to make them a success next time.

What are your next steps to continue creating change for the better?

I see all the things that I have started as an initial stepping-stone to bigger and better things. As I said above, I remember my big goals and keep coming back to them and thinking what else could I do that would fulfil them. For me it’s about:

  • Making sure the graduates of today have an enjoyable, longstanding and successful career in the industry.
  • Ensuring that everyone, no matter what their background, can access veterinary education if it is the career that they truly want- and that financial and social blockers no longer exist in veterinary medicine. This will lead to a more diverse profession.
  • Making sure that everyone, no matter what their role or qualification, can feedback and influence the profession that they work within.

In honour of International Women’s Day on March 8th, 2024, we assembled a collection of ‘Champions for Change’ profiles into a free eBook. Explore exclusive stories highlighting inspirational figures driving positive change for women in veterinary.

Our thanks to Katrin for sharing her inspiring story of how she is championing change. If you would like to nominate a Champion for Change or share your story, please let us know.

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