Today’s Veterinary Business Staff
It is not simple to pinpoint what “home” might mean for Dr. Ellen van Nierop. She was born in Pakistan, studied veterinary medicine in Belgium and carries a Dutch passport. Growing up, she would move with her family every three or four years for her father’s job, including a stop in Ecuador.
However, when Dr. van Nierop returned to Quito, the capital city of Ecuador, as an adult, she immediately had the sense that she was “right at home.” Today, Dr. van Nierop, 47, practices in Ecuador and brings a diverse perspective — along with the ability to speak five languages — to her role as president of the World Small Animal Veterinary Association.
Dr. van Nierop, who spent time on the WSAVA board as treasurer and interim CE chair, was appointed president during the WSAVA World Congress in December.
Q: As someone who originated from the Netherlands and attended university in Belgium, what brought you to Ecuador?
A: After my studies, I decided to pursue my interest in wildlife and zoo animals and did a year of volunteer work in wildlife centers all over the world. I had a wonderful time; it is certainly one of the best things I have done. But, when after a stay in Japan my plane finally landed in Quito, Ecuador, I felt instantly at home. I told myself I was just tired and traveled on to do my volunteer work at the rescue center in the jungle as planned (not my favorite climate). But afterward, I had a few days back in Quito, and the “feeling right at home” sensation was as strong as ever. I found the veterinarian who had attended to our pets when we had lived there, and she invited me to visit her new hospital. She remembered me as the girl who wanted to be a vet — and now was a vet. Because of the need to sort out my paperwork, I had to return to the Netherlands for a while but, soon after, I made the move to Quito and started working there. I have never looked back.
Q: What have you learned about veterinary medicine from studying and practicing in different places?
A: That dogs and cats are the same no matter where they live, and humans are more similar than different, even if they may not feel that way. It’s a small world after all. I think that the main difference lies in the opportunities available for investigation and the technology and equipment available to veterinary team members. That being said, I do feel that in some parts of the world, veterinarians can end up diagnosing lab results and images more than the pet right in front of them. When recent grads come to our clinic in Ecuador, their main takeaway is always how to maximize the simplest exams to give the best information, starting with a good history and physical examination. In the end, all the veterinarians I know just want what is best for the animal. It’s a strong bond and gives us a strong sense of community even if we don’t know each other.
Q: What is a normal day like in your clinic? What are your favorite aspects of practicing veterinary medicine?
A: In Ecuador, it is difficult to get people to make an appointment, so our days are sometimes slow with too many staff and sometimes way too busy with too few staff. This means there is no such thing as a typical day. What I enjoy most is the consultation itself: taking the history, deciding what the differentials are, and then making a diagnosis and treatment plan. Once the puzzle is solved, I am usually quite happy to hand the patient over to my team for them to manage the treatment while I move on to the next puzzle.
Q: What compelled you to pursue a leadership position with WSAVA?
A: At school, I was class representative, then student representative at university, so it’s perhaps not surprising that soon after joining Ecuador’s companion animal veterinary association, I became the education representative. I had no idea what WSAVA congresses were all about until a previous president, the late Dr. Peter Ihrke, convinced me to attend one in Geneva. I went to every meeting I could, including the General Assembly and other association meetings as well as the clinical lectures, and I simply fell in love with the association. At the following WSAVA Congress in 2012, my newly achieved financial qualification led to me being invited to join the WSAVA’s executive board as apprentice treasurer, then treasurer. I was honored to be elected president during WSAVA World Congress 2022 in Lima, Peru.
Q: How have your experiences prepared you for this appointment?
A: My experience has made me aware of differences in communication and culture and has given me the tools to cross these bridges. I don’t feel at all uncomfortable if people think of me as foreign or weird — I am used to being the odd one out. In the end, it helps me to be more objective while trying to understand the real reason why individuals or groups hold a particular opinion and the solution we can work towards, which will be agreeable for all.
Q: What are the key challenges facing the profession globally?
A: There are many, but two key priorities stand out:
- Professional well-being: The level of stress and burnout within the profession is widely discussed. Finding action to resolve it and offer companion animal veterinarians a rewarding and fulfilling career is urgent. We are addressing it in two ways: firstly, through the WSAVA Global Guidelines for Professional Wellness, which will be launched later this year during the WSAVA World Congress. Secondly, we are introducing non-clinical CE into both the WSAVA World Congress and our online learning platform, WSAVA Academy. It is increasingly obvious that many veterinary professionals need to develop skills in the aspects of business and HR in order to run successful businesses and ensure the well-being of their team members, so CE from us on topics such as leadership, management, self-care and team communications is coming soon.
- The lack of equity of access to veterinary medicines globally: A 2016 survey of our members revealed that 75% faced obstacles in accessing some essential medicines and that this severely affected their ability to provide optimal care to their patients. The inaccessibility of medicines to veterinarians can also lead to the creation of black or counterfeit markets and unregulated online pharmacies, which is a potential threat to both animal and human health. Issues linked to antimicrobial access, including substandard formulation, facilitate antimicrobial resistance and reduce animal welfare. Some veterinarians are forced to use what they have instead of the most appropriate therapy. This creates yet another layer on the already significant problem of the overuse and misuse of antibiotics in animals and humans.
These factors limit the ability of companion animal veterinarians in many parts of the world to provide optimal care to their patients. In this situation, it’s not just the animals that suffer. Veterinarians experience deep frustration when they are unable to provide the standard of veterinary care they have been trained to deliver. For a profession already facing serious mental health problems, this is an unnecessary additional burden and it’s an issue that the WSAVA is campaigning to change.
Q: What is your principal focus as WSAVA president?
A: We recently launched a new three-year strategy, and delivering this strategy will be the key focus of my presidency. Our priorities are to:
- Strengthen our efforts to set global standards for clinical care in key areas of veterinary practice and offer globally relevant continuing professional development, whether face to face, online courses, or tools and other resources which can be downloaded from our website.
- Extend our CE offer to include professional development in leadership, management and other business and HR-focused areas as their importance to the sustainability of the profession becomes clear.
- Campaign for change on important issues affecting our members. Our work to increase access to veterinary medicines for all companion animal veterinarians globally and to build a diverse and inclusive profession are good examples.
It’s a very rewarding role, and I’m really enjoying it, especially meeting our members from around the world and learning how we can help them and support them better.
To learn more about WSAVA, its initiatives and ways to get involved, visit wsava.org.