In consultation with Caroline Johnson: talking about all things Vetpol, SQPs and online learning

Caroline Johnson, director of Vetpol, is a self professed animal lover, who has managed to combine her love of animals and people through setting up Vetpol, and creating the first online training course for SQPs.

Interview by Alexia Yiannouli

Could you start by telling us a bit about your background, your experiences, and how you reached the position you’re in today?

I’m a life science graduate, and  I’ve got an honours degree in biology, which is where I started. I kicked off my career by working for a human pharmaceutical company before moving into veterinary pharmaceuticals, and that was my niche for a number of years. During that time  I did a variety of roles. I worked in sales management, marketing, business development – many of those roles were working with lots of people, and so I was involved in lots of training. My husband is a vet, and he also worked in veterinary pharmaceuticals, which is where we met. Before establishing our company, Vetpol,  between us we’d pretty much done every possible role. There was a lot of synergy in what we’d done, and so we ended up working together and setting up our own consultancy business, which worked out really well. We created Vetpol as a networking site for veterinary professionals, which we ran for more than ten years before setting ourselves up as a SQP regulator at the start of 2020.

How did you come to set up Vetpol, and what was the inspiration behind its creation?

We saw an opportunity and just went for it. One of the areas where our jobs overlapped was marketing –  we are always very much looking ahead. A few years ago it started to become very obvious  that everything was starting to go online. With everything we do we’re always looking ahead to see where the market is going, and then we just jump in with both feet. That’s our way of operating, and it’s worked out well so far.

At the start of the year, Vetpol became a SQP regulator – previously AMTRA and Vetskills were the only regulators.  What does Vetpol’s course offer people who want to train and become an SQP? 

From our background in pharmaceuticals, we’ve watched the SQP market grow and develop over the last 15 years. We felt that providing a digital platform would  accelerate growth  and give SQP students a flexible way of learning that could easily fit in with their busy lives. Developments in technology haven’t always helped us  manage our time, if anything it’s given us less time. We were interested in producing something that would fit in with the 21st century and would give people flexibility to learn, which is why we made the decision to take the entire course online.

“It’s the first time anywhere in the UK that a level four examination has been offered online.”

What was the process of setting up the course like?

It involved a lot of hard work! We had the advantage of starting with a blank sheet of paper and creating it from scratch. The core of the designing process was understanding exactly what VPS products were out there which SQPs would be allowed to prescribe and dispense. The data sheet compendium became the core, and we built up the course around those products. Another important element for SQPs is understanding the legislation, and what they can and cannot do within the role. Legislation is also a core part of the course material that runs all the way through from start to finish. It’s not just about knowing and understanding the SQP code of practice, but helping students apply it and knowing when it’s appropriate to refer to vets. We  know that animal welfare and husbandry are really important areas, and so we took  a holistic approach to animal welfare when writing the course materials – starting off with the basics of animal welfare and husbandry, with information and teaching on the medicines coming after that. It’s quite a logical and ethical thing to do – if you get the welfare and the husbandry right, there’s less of a need for medicines anyway. The creation of the course and its materials went through several iterations to get it right, but it’s something that we’re really proud of. 

How does the Vetpol SQP course differ to others that are available?

The most obvious thing is that it’s completely digital, and all the exams are online as well. That’s completely unique and new to the market. The way we approached the format and presentation was to take all the content and split it into a series of modules. We then took each module and broke it down into small sections, with key points highlighted, self learning exercises, and a quiz at the end of every module so people could assess their learnings. It’s been carefully designed for people with busy lives, so they can dip in and out when it suits them. It’s a big course, but it’s been broken down into much smaller and more manageable chunks of information to facilitate that learning process. 

The course was already designed to be online, and now the majority of things  are reverting to online learning and training. What do you think are the advantages of online learning, from your experience of setting the course up?

It’s convenient to study in a way that fits in with a busy life, and to have the ability to dip in and out of the learning flexibly. One massive advantage is the course’s online exams, which have been established in partnership with our awarding body, Lantra. Not only are online exams new to the SQP market, it’s the first time anywhere in the UK that a level four examination has been offered online, so it’s pioneering! Lantra has done a fantastic job with facilitating and helping us pull the whole qualification together. Another advantage of having online exams is not having to travel to test centres – it can be stressful and time consuming, and can also incur additional costs and having to take time off work. A lot of these additional stresses and costs don’t have to be considered with online exams. During lockdown, all the exam centres were closed, so we ended up having an advantage that we could never have envisaged at the time of us developing  the course. We developed it to be online for many reasons,  but now there’s another reason that’s playing in our favour.

Did you see any increase in people signing up for the course over lockdown?

No – quite the opposite actually.  The course only went live in March anyway, so the timing of things seemed almost catastrophic initially.  Everything stopped, and all the people who had expressed interest in training with Vetpol  had other things in their lives to deal with. If you look at the types of businesses who employ SQPs, sending their staff for additional training wasn’t at the forefront of their minds. Vet practices were initially only dealing with emergencies, and a lot of their staff were furloughed. Pet shops were busier than ever, and that meant they were manically trying to set up their stores as safely as they could, while also catering for the increase in demand. So most people’s minds, understandably, were off the ball where training was concerned. The announcement of the ‘rule of six’ in October seemed to coincide with all the people who were initially interested in the course deciding to start it.  I imagine that a lot of people realised that we were in the pandemic for the long haul, and I think many people came to accept that businesses were either going to survive or they weren’t. A lot of people might have been thinking that if their business was going to thrive in the future, then training SQPs up would be a beneficial thing to do.

One of our key aims and objectives when entering the SQP market was to grow it, because one of the things we felt when offering online content is that there’s a lot of untapped potential out there. There are many businesses that could really benefit from getting involved.  We thought that having a digital offering would make it more accessible and easier for people to study – and the early signs from our course show that we are doing exactly that. Nearly everyone who has signed up for our course so far wouldn’t be training to become SQPs if it wasn’t for the fact that  Vetpol has come into the market. We’re really excited about that, and hopefully we will see our offering snowball and get bigger in time. 

“We would really like to develop the role of an SQP so that they become a critical and valuable member of the vet led team.”

There has been some talk about changing the title of SQP – what is your opinion on changing the term SQP to better reflect those within the role?

There has been a lot of talk about changing the name, but the reality is that SQP – Suitably Qualified Person – is a title recognised in law, and as far as we’re aware, the VMD has no intention of changing it. That’s what we’re sticking with – our SQPs will be called Vetpol SQPs.  A bigger issue is the reason  behind a lot of people in the industry talking about changing the name: there’s a complete lack of professional recognition for SQPs. The role has been around for a long time, and has been recognised in  law for over 15 years now, but  the average member of the public and pet owner would most likely have no idea of what an SQP is,  and often they are dealing with SQPs without even realising they are interacting with a professionally qualified person.

This is a particular problem that we want to address, but that won’t be fixed by changing the job title. One way of addressing it is through a range of very distinctive trademarks. Pharmacies, for example, are recognisable anywhere you go by the green cross trademark outside of each store – you immediately associate that imagery with where you get medicines from. The V+ trademark has been designed for a very similar reason – so you can identify where you can buy veterinary medicines from. This means that in a range of environments, for example in vet practices, pet shops and farm retail stores, there’s an opportunity for those businesses to use the V+ device. The second part of the problem is once owners find where veterinary medicines are sold, the medicines have to be stored behind glass and out of reach of the general public. Consumers then have to find who can  supply those products to them. The V+ device alongside  Vetpol’s VQP trademark can assist customers in finding the person who can help them – a qualified SQP. These trademarks provide people with a link between the medicines and the people qualified to sell them. They will also help with recognition of the hard work and effort that goes into training to become an SQP. 

How do you see the role of an SQP changing and evolving in the future?

There’s a lot of talk at the minute around vet led teams. What we are doing will enable SQPs to work much more closely with vets within a vet led team, and allow them to also work more with others in the profession. We’re very focused on the need for SQPs to refer when necessary. From time to time SQPs are going to be presented with cases that require a veterinary diagnosis, so we’d really like to develop the role of an SQP so that they become a critical and valuable member of the vet led team, whether they are working in a vet practice, in pet shops, or somewhere else. It’s all about pulling the whole profession of veterinary pharmacy together. If we can get the professional recognition right, we would like the SQP pathway to be seen as a good career move, and for it to be recognised as a profession. There is a lot of scope for growth in the future, and we’ve got lots of ideas of how we might achieve that in time. 

What are your future plans and projects for Vetpol and for the course in the future?

One of the key areas we want to focus on quite early on is to open up more options for SQPs to take CPD. We’ve already started this process through having CPD links on our website, which are used to signost people to relevant CPD. We’ve also built an online CPD recording system to make it as simple as possible for Vetpol SQPs to be able to record the CPD they’ve attended. Importantly, we wish to develop a wide range of good quality CPD that will help SQPs with their role. Taking a holistic approach through highlighting the importance of husbandry and animal welfare, we’re really keen to accredit CPD that will help SQPs become ambassadors for animal welfare. Their ability to prescribe certain medications is part of that package. They can give advice, speak knowledgeably, and supply medicines. Generally speaking, giving SQPs professional recognition will also open career paths for them. The potential for growth in the SQP market is considerable;  we can already see growth happening, and so it will be exciting to see the role of the SQP develop more in the future.

Find out more information about Vetpol here.

Read more stories about Vetpol and the SQP course it offers here.