Q&A: Karen Humm on specialising in emergency and critical care
As part of a series of articles on veterinary specialisms, My Vet Future is talking to vets about their route to specialisation, with the aim of helping vets better understand how they can become specialists.
Name: Karen Humm
Job title: Senior lecturer in emergency and critical care
- 2001: Graduated as a veterinary surgeon from the University of Cambridge
- 2001-2003: Worked in small animal practice in Bristol
- 2003-2004: Small animal rotating internship at the University of Liverpool
- 2004: Gained RCVS certificate in veterinary anaesthesia
- 2004-2005: Worked in emergency practice in Wimbledon, London
- 2005-2008: Residency in emergency and critical care (ECC) at the Royal Veterinary College (RVC)
- 2008: Diplomate of the American College of Veterinary ECC status awarded (ACVECC)
- 2008-2010: Staff clinician in ECC at the RVC
- 2010-2017: Lecturer in ECC at the RVC
- 2015: Diplomate of the European College of Veterinary ECC status awarded (ECVECC)
- 2015: Became RCVS recognised specialist in ECC
- 2016: Completed masters in veterinary education from the RVC
- 2017-present: Senior lecturer in ECC at the RVC
Did you have a career plan upon graduating?
I wanted to go into small animal practice and I thought I would like to do an internship at some point after that, but I didn’t have a specific plan to be a specialist. In fact, I knew very little about the system of how to specialise at that point.
When did you decide that you wanted to specialise?
I really loved my small animal rotating internship at the University of Liverpool. In particular, the anaesthesia team were fantastic and taught me a lot, and encouraged me to take my RCVS certificate in veterinary anaesthesia. Although I enjoyed anaesthesia a lot, it was the patient stabilisation and postoperative care that I found particularly interesting, and so it was suggested to me that I consider looking into ECC as a discipline.
Can you describe your route to specialisation?
After my internship, I decided to apply for an ECC residency – the only place where it was possible to do this at the time in the UK was at the RVC. To increase my chances of obtaining the RVC residency, I took a position as an emergency out-of-hours vet, which was brilliant for increasing my experience and confidence.
"There are so many paths to fulfilling and interesting jobs as a vet. Being a specialist is one of them"
The three years of my residency involved a very steep learning curve, but I really enjoyed it. The clinicians and nurses I worked with and learned from were fantastic.
After my three years as a resident, I sat the certifying exams to become a diplomate of the ACVECC, meaning I became a specialist once I passed those exams in 2008. I was recognised as a diplomate by the fairly new ECVECC in 2015 and an RCVS recognised specialist in ECC in the same year.
Can you describe the commitment involved?
My residency was not only hard work for me, but also for my family and friends. I wasn’t able to spend as much time with them as I would have liked to. My residency also involved a lot of night work, which I found very hard. I am full of admiration for people who do residencies when they have other commitments, such as being a parent. My residency ruled my life for three years!
However, I did get to stay in the UK, unlike many vets who have to travel away from their home country to obtain a residency.
How do you maintain your specialist status?
ACVECC diplomates who gained their diplomate status before 2016 don’t have to reregister at set time points to maintain specialist status.
However, I do have to reregister and achieve certain criteria to retain my ECVECC diplomate and RCVS specialist statuses. I need a certain number of points to remain a specialist. I can attain points for things like supervising residents, publishing journal articles and attending conferences.
What are you doing in your current role?
I work in the intensive care unit and emergency room at the Queen Mother Hospital for Animals, which is the small animal specialist hospital at the RVC. It’s an amazing place to work as there are so many specialist vets and nurses working there, so I learn a lot from others.
We have a great team of ECC specialists and residents who run the ECC service, as well as the first opinion out-of-hours service with the interns, meaning that I get to see a really wide range of cases. Our nurses, patient care assistants, reception and administration teams all work towards a common goal of providing great care to our patients and their owners, so it feels like a big team effort. My special interest is transfusion medicine and I run the transfusion medicine service.
As well as working as a clinician, I also run the ECC service with Dom Barfield, which involves quite a bit of administration. I also spend my time on research, and I teach undergraduate and postgraduate vets and nurses on many of the courses the RVC offers. I have also recently started doing more pastoral work with the vet students, working as a senior tutor. It’s a very varied job, which I love.
Describe how you maintain a good work-life balance
When I first specialised, I worried that I wasn’t good enough or that I didn’t know enough. Over time, I have realised that I never will know as much as I want, or be as good at my job as I would like. Accepting this has allowed me to relax much more and I make a real conscious effort not to think about work when I am off duty. I don’t check work emails when I’m on annual leave and only once daily if I am not meant to be at work.
What advice would you give to vets considering becoming specialists?
There are so many paths to fulfilling and interesting jobs as a vet. Being a specialist is one of them, but it’s not a career path that would suit everyone. Consider why you want to do it carefully and talk to specialists and residents in training.
Also, spend some time seeing practice with at least one specialist in the discipline you are interested in. If you are still keen, then ask for advice about how to get to where you want to be and go for it!