As a kid, Dr Richard Burchell was often told that “curiosity killed the cat”! He was always possessed of an immense curiosity and was thus attracted to academia where he could be involved in solving problems and challenging existing dogma and playing a small role in advancing the discipline of veterinary science. Let’s get to know a little more about Dr Richard Burchell, or Rich as he likes to be called.
You’ve experienced veterinary practice and teaching at universities in South Africa, New Zealand and Australia (Townsville). What was the main reason you left South Africa for New Zealand, and more recently, Townsville in Queensland, Australia?
“We left South Africa mainly for personal reasons and moved to New Zealand for a new adventure. I had a wonderful time at Massey, and was fortunate to have been quite productive there. I moved to James Cook University because I felt that being a young school, and relatively small that there was tremendous potential to make a real impact there, and felt there are many opportunities.”
How would you compare the lifestyles in these 3 countries, and the demographics of the veterinary students at Pretoria, Massey, and James Cook University?
“There are a lot of similarities between the three countries, all are sports mad and people tend to enjoy the outdoors and tend to be quite laid back. Being African, nothing can compare to Africa’s natural beauty to me, and its majestic landscapes and a breathtaking array of fauna and flora. It also has a wonderful climate and is extremely culturally diverse which makes it an interesting place to live. New Zealand is basically like one big garden, and one almost gets sensory overload from all of the natural beauty because there are a limited number of adjectives to describe the relentless verdant splendor! The only drawback for we African children was the sun was a bit anaemic for us, since we tend to be solar powered!
As far as Australia goes, I grew up with crocodile Dundee and in the Warne, Waugh, McGrath era, and so I pictured Australia as hot, flat, full of flies and filled with people who beat you at cricket and then rub your noses in it! I guess that era of sporting dominance portrayed Aussies as domineering and a touch arrogant. However, nothing could be further from the truth; Australia is ineffably beautiful and diverse – and the people are warm, welcoming, have a self-deprecating humor and we felt instantly at home here. We are also constantly amazed by the astounding fauna and flora, and the sheer vastness of the place. In addition, we relish the return of the sun!
In terms of the institutions and students, it has continually struck me how similar veterinary students are across institutions and countries. The University of Pretoria Faculty of Veterinary Science is enormous, with enviable infrastructure and facilities, and is a relatively modern building. It is also a separate campus, and so the vet school is entirely self-contained, which has the advantage of having dedicated facilities, but the disadvantage of missing out on interdisciplinary cross-pollination that can occur when faculties are close together. Massey and James Cook University, are much smaller and are younger schools, and so they are still growing and developing, and both schools strive to produce good all-round generalist vets – or rural practitioners. I found that most UP graduates tend to want to branch into small or large animal practice or specialise, whereas most Massey and JCU grads want to work in mixed practices. Aside from that, most vet students are the same. They tend to be motivated by passion and compassion and are diligent and conscientious. I am concerned that as veterinary educators we perhaps don’t place enough emphasis on veterinary professional mental health, mindfulness and coping with burnout, and this is across all of the institutions I have taught at.”
In your own words, what is it about small animal gastrointestinal endoscopy that you find interesting and that you believe general practitioners would benefit from learning from and performing better?
“In order to continue to love what we do, we need to feel like we are growing and progressing as clinicians. Endoscopy, done properly, is fun and rewarding. This is especially true of foreign body removal, and particularly in the oesophagus, where you know that if you have removed a foreign body, you have spared the patient of an open chest procedure. In addition, I think many of us feel that we want to see veterinary practice become more non (less)-invasive, and although an exploratory laparotomy is an invaluable diagnostic tool, we would like to feel like we can offer more sophisticated, lower morbidity procedures. Furthermore, it enhances the profile of your practice and you as a practitioner if you are able to offer advanced diagnostics. Lastly, the ability of endoscopy to record the study is a massive advantage for medical record keeping, in comparison to laparotomies where there tends to be no visual record.”
What have you learned from experience that you didn’t learn from a textbook? What practical advice would you offer fellow vets?
“This is difficult to summarise in a paragraph. Textbooks are wonderful resources, but they follow organ systems approaches, whereas practitioners are confronted with syndromes that often span organ systems, for example pu/pd which can be endocrine, renal, hepatic or even neurological. Textbooks also struggle to highlight key differences between diseases with similar presentations, and so often one has a condition that you can link to several disease processes because of overlapping clinical findings. So, I have learned to try and identify consistent findings, or patterns of abnormalities that are key differences between different disease processes. In other words, what makes this disease unique?
The other thing I learned through experience is: 80% of diagnostics is hidden in the history and physical examination and,
Look at your patient, not the numbers.”
What advice would you give new graduates?
“Personally: Look after yourself, and don’t neglect your relationships. When the chips are down, who is it that is there for you? It’s definitely not your job, it’s your loved ones.
Professionally: 1) your first job doesn’t define you. Too many vet grads are stressed about finding the perfect first job. Get a job and start working to find out what you like and don’t like. 2) Be prepared to move around a bit until you find a position that suits your abilities and passions. 3) Try to learn something new every day, and try to make each case (apart from routine vaccinations) a learning experience. It’s called practice because we are constantly refining our skills and knowledge. 4) Don’t become “textbook thumpers” who berate others with a shaking fist on the one hand and a textbook in the other. Knowledge is dynamic, changing and mutable. Be open-minded and humble, because in 5 years’ time a treasured drug may have been shelved or a treasured physiological concept debunked! As vets we should be a composite of knowledge, experience and pragmatism.”
What do you like to do for fun?
“I mostly enjoy spending time with my wife and kids, but we all enjoy the outdoors, especially hiking, road-tripping, bird watching and finding nice places to swim – where there aren’t any crocodiles or venomous creatures! “
How do you spend your days off?
“Having children there aren’t many of those, but I like to get out of the house and spend some time exploring the natural beauty our surroundings. On lazy days I like to read or rediscover old classic comedies like Blackadder, the thin blue line and two Ronnies.”
Interested in sharing some of Rich’s curiosity and learning about small animal gastrointestinal endoscopy? Register for the VetPrac Small Animal Gastrointestinal Endoscopy Workshop at Gatton on February 21-22, 2019.
Dr Richard Burchell can be contacted at
Address: 1 Solander Drive, Douglas, Townsville
Written by Alison Caiafa