Q&A: Rodney Ayl on specialising in veterinary oncology
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: Rodney Ayl
Job title: Oncology specialist
- 1979: Completed Bachelor of science zoology and biochemistry at the University of the Witwatersrand Johannesburg
- 1985: Completed Bachelor of veterinary science – veterinary medicine & surgery at the University of Pretoria Onderstepoort
- 1989: Rotating internship in small animal medicine & surgery (including oncology) at the Animal Medical Center in New York, USA
- 1992: Completed three-year medical oncology residency leading to certification as an American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine (ACVIM) diplomate in oncology, Ohio State University, Columbus, USA
- May 1993 – April 2019: Creator & director of medical and radiation oncology consultation and treatment programmes at various specialty centres across southern California
- May 1992 to May 1994: Reference laboratory oncology consultant at PAL/Antech Labs, Irvine, California
- 1997: Completed non-residency requirements to sit the certifying exam for certification as a radiation oncology diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Radiology (ACVR)
- May 2019: Joined Paragon Veterinary Referrals as an oncology specialist, Wakefield, UK
Did you have a career plan?
I had originally planned on becoming a large animal vet working for friends back home in Zimbabwe on a beef cattle ranch. However, this plan changed once I left Zimbabwe – mostly due to the security situation in the country at the time.
When and why did you decide to become a veterinary oncologist?
It was while working in a first opinion mixed animal practice in upstate New York that I decided I wanted to specialise. At the time, I had been treating my girlfriend’s dog for cancer. I decided that I wanted to know a lot about a little rather than a little about a lot.
How long did it take you to specialise?
In total, it took me 10 years to become both an ACVIM specialist in oncology and ACVR specialist in radiation oncology.
Can you describe the commitment involved?
Specialising is both a personal and financial commitment. Leaving Zimbabwe and moving to the USA involved assimilating and integrating into a different society. Going through the process of becoming a licenced vet in the USA as a foreign graduate and attaining a Green Card in order to practice in the USA were both financial commitments that involved upfront costs. However, knowing what my ultimate goal was and doing something I loved enabled me to see and experience the time simply as an enjoyable life progression, rather than a burden.
How do you maintain your specialist status?
Completing career professional development (CPD) is the prime way of maintaining specialist status. This involves reading articles, giving and attending lectures, and attending conferences.
"Much of my career has involved establishing new medical and radiation oncology departments in new or existing speciality veterinary groups"
There is also a requirement by the ACVR to attend their conference at least once in three years. The ACVIM has now introduced the Maintenance of Credentials (MOC) process which requires diplomates to meet the criteria established to demonstrate that they have maintained their credentials, or their certificate will become inactive and they will no longer be recognised as board-certified. This became a requirement for all new diplomates and for any diplomates certified prior to 2017 who volunteer to participate.
Tell us about your career in private practice
Being only the second medical oncologist and first radiation oncologist resident in Southern California back in the 90’s, much of my career has involved establishing new medical and radiation oncology departments in new or existing speciality veterinary groups. This involved a lot of the business and marketing side of veterinary speciality medicine, as well as the practice side.
In the early days of speciality medicine, there was a need to educate both the general practitioners (GP) and the public on how to use specialists; how we could function as an extension of the general practice to provide their clients with diagnostic and treatment options that were not available in first opinion practice. This included visits to the GP practices, taking consultation calls, giving lectures, holding seminars, and distributing brochures and newsletters.
With time, the GP’s came to know exactly how to use us and what we could do for them and their clients, and referral cases increased significantly. There are now up to 20 medical oncologists in the southern California area and up to five radiation oncologists, with plenty of work for all of them. Pet insurance has also helped significantly to enable clients to pay for expensive treatments.
Starting the new oncology department at Paragon Veterinary Referrals does take me back to the beginning somewhat, where I am working on getting the word out as to what we can offer, a part I really enjoy. I hope to develop a compassionate comprehensive cancer centre where all aspects of treating pets with cancer, while supporting their owners through a difficult time, is available.
How do you maintain a good work-life balance?
I believe it is critical to maintain a work-life balance both in general and speciality medicine. Our work in the human-animal bond arena is very demanding emotionally as well as time-consuming.
"In the early days of speciality medicine, there was a need to educate both the general practitioners (GP) and the public on how to use specialists"
Compassion fatigue is common within veterinary medicine and without some sort of emotional and physical outlet, it can become overwhelming and extremely detrimental to vets and their families.
I try to talk about my days at work with family and I go to a gym three times a week. I also get out of the house for walks, hikes, horse riding and trips as often as possible.
Why would you recommend a specialist career?
I view my 15 years of university education as a life experience rather than a requirement for specialisation. Doing something I am passionate about as my chosen career makes me look forward to every day at work. I love my job and am surrounded by others who love theirs. I consider myself very lucky!