Ed Hall: UK’s only recognised veterinary specialist in gastroenterology
Specialists have existed for a long time (most veterinary academics have always been considered specialists in their field) but now there are formal diploma examinations and ‘specialist’ has more recently become a recognised title. As I near retirement and reflect on my career, I don’t remember ever having a clear plan to become a specialist, although I do feel I have ended up where I wanted.
Some of this was down to luck, but recognising what I didn’t want to do (ie, equine and farm) and taking every opportunity to pursue my interests as well as working hard were important. Money was never a driver; it can’t be for anyone who wants to work in a university. I don’t begrudge the larger salaries some specialists in private practice earn, but I do feel they miss the pleasure of training future vets and specialists.
How did I become a specialist if that was not my original goal?
At school, I was always fascinated by science (and hopeless at all languages except Latin), and my goal was to become a researcher. Biological sciences and chemistry were my major interests, partly because I was inspired by my father, a research chemist, and by my biology teacher, and partly because my mathematical abilities were not great. At vet school, I was one of the few vet students who actually enjoyed biochemistry!
While I have always loved dogs and cats I was not set on becoming a vet as a young child. I only chose to study veterinary medicine when applying for university after being told by a famous veterinary anaesthetist (who happened to be my uncle) that being a biologist was a ‘trade’ and not a ‘profession’.
Consequently, I went to Cambridge with the intention of becoming a veterinary scientific researcher. Then, during my time at vet school, I found I was fascinated by clinical work and inspired by two young lecturers – Michael Herrtage and John Houlton. When I graduated I undertook an internship and residency at the University of Pennsylvania. Then six years spent labelling test tubes for my subsequent PhD and postdoc fellowship convinced me that clinically based and not laboratory-based research was what I wanted to do, and it continues to excite me.
Internship and residency
I now know how lucky I was to get an internship in the USA. It focused my path towards internal medicine as I soon learned I didn’t enjoy orthopaedics. By the end of my internship I knew I was heading for the academic clinician/researcher/teacher pathway.
A residency in medicine was the next obvious stepping stone, but I always felt the best teachers in vet school were those who had experienced the real world of first-opinion practice, and so I chose to return to practice in the UK for a couple of years before my residency. But later, during my residency I realised that to be a credible academic clinical researcher, I also needed a PhD, and was again lucky to obtain a Wellcome Research Scholarship supervised by Roger Batt at Liverpool.
Gastrointestinal diseases were an interest during my residency, and I also learned I didn’t want to be a cardiologist or nephrologist, and so a PhD investigating gluten-sensitive enteropathy in Irish setters appealed to me. Subsequently, I have focused my clinical activity and research on internal medicine and particularly canine gastroenterology.
"Looking back I take most pride from all the students I have taught and particularly in the 25 residents I have helped train towards specialist status"
At the end of this formal training I was eligible to become a ‘specialist’, but at that time the European College of Veterinary Internal Medicine (ECVIM) and the RCVS certificates did not exist.
I did pass the general examination for the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine after my residency, but never took the certifying exam because I was busy with my PhD and a specialist diploma wasn’t valued in the UK at that time. I did subsequently obtain the ECVIM companion animal diploma. Since then the status of the specialist has risen.
As a specialist, one’s area of expertise tends to become narrower with time. I am currently the only RCVS recognised specialist in small animal medicine (gastroenterology), but probably means that I am OK at gastroenterology and not very good at the rest of veterinary medicine!
I take pride in my time as a British Small Animal Veterinary Association officer, my research achievements and all the patients I haven’t killed. Looking back I take most pride from all the students I have taught and particularly in the 25 residents I have helped train towards specialist status.
Would I embark on the same career path now?
Probably, despite seeing the pressures new graduates have in achieving a work-life balance and dealing with debt.
To have a career in something you enjoy has to be the ultimate aim and I have achieved that.
1973-1979: Cambridge University, BA in natural sciences (pharmacology) and VetMB
1979-1980: University of Pennsylvania, rotating internship
1980-1982: Private practice in Kent
1982-1984: University of Pennsylvania, residency in small animal medicine
1984-1987: University of Liverpool, Wellcome Scholarship PhD
1988-1990: University of Liverpool, Wellcome postdoctoral fellowship
1991-1995: University of Liverpool, lecturer in veterinary pathology
1995-2018: University of Bristol, lecturer, senior lecturer (1999), professor (2004) of small animal medicine
1998: Diplomate of the European College of Veterinary Internal Medicine
2018: Professor emeritus, Langford Vets