Helping vets across Europe develop their careers through CPD

Heber Alves

I grew up in Brazil where huge ranches with thousands of cows are part of the landscape. I imagined myself as half vet, half cowboy, riding out on my horse to check on my patients. I thought maybe I’d even end up owning a ranch one day. If you’d told me then that I’d end up working with small animals, I might have become a civil engineer – my other career plan – instead.

Vet school

My family is half Portuguese and half Spanish and when I was 16, my parents sent me to Portugal to experience life in Europe. I got a place at vet school at the Universidade de Trás-os-Montes e Alto Douro (UTAD), which is in a small city in rural Portugal. There were only 60 of us in my year and we were a close-knit group – almost like a second family.

Vet school in Portugal lasts for six years and, in the final year, you see practice. One day, I was out with a vet who was trying to anaesthetise a horse for a castration and we were almost killed because the animal was in so much pain. It was the first indication I had that, as a profession, our knowledge of anaesthesia was not what it should be.

Developing an interest in anaesthesia

The field of animal anaesthesia was developing rapidly, so I went back to Brazil for a year and worked with Stelio Luna, a European diplomate in anaesthesia and analgesia, and respected researcher Antonio Aguiar. I learned so much I decided I wanted to become a specialist.

I graduated in 2004 and worked briefly at the hospital at the UTAD vet school. I soon realised, however, that I was motivated more by research than running clinics. I’d become particularly interested in the mathematical and statistical aspects of anaesthesia. I started my postgraduate studies at Leon University in Spain and at Porto university’s Institute for Molecular and Cell Biology. While I studied, I also lectured for UTAD. I focused on a particular aspect of research – developing techniques to anaesthetise laboratory animals in order to provide better stability, recovery and pain control.


"While working on my PhD, I researched postgraduate CPD and was struck by how little there was available, certainly of any quality"


At the same time, I started working with a research group in the neurosurgery department at the Santo Antonio Hospital (for people) in Porto. We were working with closed-loop systems to control anaesthesia using computers and neurophysiologic monitorisation. The results were amazing. I had several papers published in UK and American peer-reviewed journals. I also wrote papers on the depth of anaesthesia and its effect on memory and learning.

While working on my PhD, I researched postgraduate CPD and was struck by how little there was available, certainly of any quality. At this time I also met David Babington, founder of veterinary CPD company Improve International. This was a turning point in my career.

Coincidentally, my PhD coordinator happened to mention that he had come across Improve International, but said he felt that its training approach would not work in Europe. I reviewed its programmes and felt very differently. It was an epiphany – the type of courses on offer were exactly what I was looking for.

CPD in Portugal

David and I met in 2006 and knew at once that we shared a similar vision for CPD. I offered to replicate some of Improve’s modular programmes in Portugal as an experiment. I was only 26 when we started working together and inexperienced in the business world, so it was a leap of faith on his part, but our first year’s courses in Portugal – small animal practice, equine practice, small animal surgery – sold out within three weeks. The courses were revolutionary in Europe.

I even had calls from the Portuguese Ordem dos Veterinarios (the RCVS equivalent) because they were in discussions about making CPD mandatory in Portugal at that time. The rest is history. I set up an office for Improve in Portugal in 2007, supported by Ana Rocha, a lawyer friend. A few months later I invited Rui Lobao, a friend from vet school, to join the team.

This was just the start and, in 2019, our 21st anniversary year, we have operations in 22 countries with more than 500 speakers delivering courses in seven languages. We are the largest CPD provider for veterinarians in the world – a vision I’ve held from day one. We continue to grow rapidly year on year.


"Many of us, by our nature, are keen to continue learning and to improve our career prospects"


I attribute our success to a strong, consistent management team that is passionate about CPD and driven by the need to constantly improve. We do everything we can to create a unique experience for our delegates and to ensure that the syllabus and learning objectives of our programmes are state-of-the-art.

We also ensure that they are consistent globally so that a vet trained by Improve in the UK will practice at the same level as a vet we have trained in any other country.

Looking back and observing how the profession has developed, partly as a result of our work, makes me proud. Delegates who have undertaken our general practitioner certificate (GPCert) often tell us that the qualification has changed their lives. Recently I launched Improve in Japan and China and, less than a year in, we are the main CPD provider for vets in Japan.

I also feel proud when I see our delegates becoming our lecturers. A few weeks ago, I was in China for the first module of our GPCert in small animal medicine in Shanghai. The speaker was Tobias Grave, an American, European and RCVS recognised specialist in emergency and critical care. He told delegates that his GPCert in small animal practice led him directly to becoming a specialist. I could see in the faces of some of the delegates that they were thinking, ‘this could be me in a few years’.

The veterinary profession is developing rapidly all around the world and the demand for vets is higher than ever. Many of us, by our nature, are keen to continue learning and to improve our career prospects. Continuing education is the most effective way to do this.

Setting career goals

My advice to colleagues is to set a goal for your career. Once you know what it is, you can develop a strategy to achieve it – it’s like building a house brick by brick. I knew early on that I was most interested in research and education and I have been lucky enough to build a rewarding career, which takes me around the world meeting many veterinary colleagues and supporting them in developing their own careers. I’m looking forward to the next chapter.

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