Q&A: Derek Flaherty on specialising in anaesthesia

Derek Flaherty, anaesthesia specialist

Name: Derek Flaherty

Job title: Specialist in veterinary anaesthesia and analgesia, Southern Counties Veterinary Specialists


1988: Graduated as a veterinary surgeon from the University of Glasgow

1988-1994: Worked for the PDSA in north-east England

1990: Gained RCVS certificate in veterinary anaesthesia

1994-1997: Residency in veterinary anaesthesia at the University of Glasgow

1997-2017: Lecturer in anaesthesia at the University of Glasgow

1999: Gained RCVS diploma in veterinary anaesthesia

1999: Gained European College of Veterinary Anaesthesia and Analgesia diploma

2003-2017: Head of anaesthesia at the University of Glasgow

2012: Awarded personal professorship in anaesthesia

2017: Fellowship of the RCVS for meritorious contributions to clinical practice

2017-present: Specialist anaesthetist at Southern Counties Veterinary Specialists in Hampshire

Did you have a career plan?

All I ever intended to do after graduation was be a small animal vet in general practice; to me, that was the ideal job, and one that I’d wanted to do since I first started to ‘see practice’ when I was 13 years old. Following graduation from Glasgow in 1988, I spent six years working for the PDSA in the north east of England. After my first year in practice, I thought I needed a bit of a challenge, so decided I’d register for an RCVS certificate. I did thoroughly enjoy my time with the PDSA, and I think that if the RCVS certificate examiners hadn’t encouraged me to attempt the diploma, I’d probably still happily be a first opinion vet. Sometimes fate has other plans…

Describe your route to becoming a specialist

My main clinical interest as an undergraduate had been dermatology, so I thought this would be the ideal subject for my certificate; unfortunately, as I started to collect cases for my case log, I discovered that clients often didn’t return for follow-up appointments –  I saw lots of interesting skin cases once and never again! This was a little frustrating, so I decided that if I was going to do a certificate, it would have to be in some discipline where I wasn’t relying on clients coming back. 

On this basis alone, I narrowed my choices down to anaesthesia and radiology. Having got on well with my lecturer in anaesthesia at Glasgow, Professor Jacky Reid, and appreciating that she’d support me through my studies, I opted for anaesthesia. At this point, I had no intention of pursuing a career in anaesthesia, and I often wonder how different my life would be today had I chosen radiology (for one thing I wouldn’t have met my partner, who’s also a veterinary anaesthesia specialist). However, after I’d successfully passed the certificate in 1990, the examiners contacted Jacky to say they thought I should be strongly encouraged to do the RCVS diploma.

The PDSA had been very supportive during my certificate studies so, when the examiners suggested I should undertake the diploma, I investigated the feasibility of doing so by undertaking numerous externships while continuing my PDSA job. It quickly became apparent that this was not really achievable (unless I was willing to use up all my holidays every year visiting different centres), so I had to make the decision whether to continue as a first opinion vet or to take the plunge and go down the route of a residency. 

At this point in time, residencies were still in their infancy. Fortunately for me, Glasgow decided to establish a residency programme and I was offered the first-ever resident post in veterinary anaesthesia. 

I subsequently spent over 20 years at Glasgow, passing both the RCVS and European College diplomas in anaesthesia, becoming head of anaesthesia, and being awarded a personal professorship and fellowship of the RCVS for meritorious contributions to clinical practice. I decided to leave academia in 2017 and move to Southern Counties Veterinary Specialists in Hampshire, where I currently work as a specialist anaesthetist.

How long did it take you to become a specialist? 

I undertook my residency between 1994 and 1997, and was then appointed as lecturer in anaesthesia at Glasgow. During this period, the European College diplomas also started to take shape, so, in 1999, I ended up sitting and passing both the RCVS diploma and European diploma in veterinary anaesthesia (later renamed ‘veterinary anaesthesia and analgesia’ to reflect the fact that anaesthetists are usually at the forefront of pain management). 

Back then, there was no automatic acknowledgement that achieving a diploma was equivalent to specialist status, and it was several years before I was accepted as an RCVS recognised specialist in the subject. Later still, our European College was recognised by the (then) newly established European Board of Veterinary Specialisation and I additionally became a European specialist. I guess from the time I undertook my RCVS certificate to when I became a diplomate was approximately nine years.

"I don’t know many specialists who make a career change after spending so long working in one place, but I am proof that you can do it and be happy with your decision"

Can you describe the commitment involved ? 

I consider myself very fortunate in that, although there were very few residencies established when I began my anaesthesia trip, there was also very little competition to enter one – I didn’t even have a formal interview before being offered the post at Glasgow. This contrasts with the situation today where people often undertake multiple internships over several years and still don’t manage to secure a residency. From my viewpoint, I would say I actually had it relatively easy. I also didn’t face a huge salary drop moving from my PDSA job to the residency, and I guess the hardest part was getting my head around intense studying again, and compromising a little on my social activities.

How do you maintain your specialist status?

 I am reaccredited by the European College every five years, and have to demonstrate that I am still active in my discipline. This is done by gaining various ‘points’ for things such as publishing, training residents, delivering CPD, etc, and I have to achieve a certain number to demonstrate that I am still an active specialist.

What are you doing now

Having spent 23 years in academia at the University of Glasgow, I finally decided to move to private referral practice at Southern Counties Veterinary Specialists in 2017. This was not a decision I made lightly (who does after spending over 20 years in the same place?), but I could feel myself becoming increasingly frustrated both by university politics, and the need to do multiple things (teaching, clinical work, administration, etc) all at the same time; I began to feel I was doing lots of jobs, but not doing any of them very well. 

In the end, the decision to move to private practice actually came quite easily once I realised what was on offer ‘out there’, and, despite some initial reservations as to how I’d cope after so long in academia, I can honestly say I have not regretted the decision to move to private practice for one minute. Sometimes the grass is actually greener on the other side!

How do you maintain a good work-life balance? 

One of the big advantages of being employed at Southern Counties Veterinary Specialists is that all the clinicians work a maximum of four days per week. This was a revelation to me after having worked at least five days each week for the previous 30 years of my career, and there is no way I could go back now. I strongly believe that when you work hard, you really need adequate ‘down time’ to recover, and I don’t think you completely realise how important this is until you are able to take a step back. I also avoid (as much as possible) taking work home with me, as I think it’s vital to have an obvious split between your work life and home life.

Anything else you’d like to add?

I don’t know many specialists who make a career change after spending so long working in one place, but I am proof that you can do it and be happy with your decision.

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