Sarah Golding, PhD student and trainee Health Psychologist (University of Surrey)
How does a trainee health psychologist end up researching livestock farming? By starting with a keen but unspecified interest in a big topic, by being brave enough to approach a potential supervisor to talk through those early, vague ideas, and by being open to where those conversations might lead!
That big topic was antibiotic resistance (when the drugs no longer harm the bugs) and I’d assumed I’d do a typical health psychology PhD: explore GP-patient communication and decision-making, then design an intervention to reduce antibiotic prescriptions. Simple. But then I discovered such work was already well underway, and I realised I needed another angle. I was going nowhere fast, trying to think up alternative projects with GPs, and then my would-be supervisor asked the magic question…who else uses antibiotics? Well, I said. Hospital doctors? Pharmacists? Vets? Vets, she said. I know a vet who is interested in psychology…maybe we could do something with vets?
And so we did, and it’s really good fun, but I’m often asked what psychology has to do with veterinary medicine (including by my participants!). Well, vets are healthcare professionals, who are often highly autonomous practitioners, and they have client relationships to nurture, protect, and negotiate. Farmers are time-pressured people, busy running businesses, managing staff, and making countless decisions that affect their animal husbandry practices. Whichever way you look at it, vets and farmers are people too; they are driven by beliefs, emotions, and biases, just the same as doctors, nurses, and patients are. The same applies to those of us who are pet owners. Ultimately, human psychology is a factor in animal health outcomes. And in the case of antibiotic resistance, that means the psychology of vets, farmers, and pet owners influences human health outcomes too.
There is much debate about the extent to which inappropriate antibiotic use in farming causes antibiotic resistance in human bacteria. There are high profile cases of resistance genes emerging in bacteria carried by livestock, and of these resistant bacteria being passed to humans. But there are also (less well publicised) examples where the resistance has gone the other way, from human to animal bacteria. In reality, genetic mapping studies are complex and hard, and mostly, we just lack the data to say for sure. Ultimately, however, we all share one global microbiome. We therefore need to tackle inappropriate antibiotic use in both humans and animals, as the public (and animal) health risks from resistant infections are real and increasing. Bacteria are not worried about borders, and many are not fussy about which species they live in or on.
Health psychology has an important role to play in tackling this issue – in both humans and animals. Antibiotic resistance threatens both current medical practice and our future food security. My research will provide insight into factors that drive inappropriate antibiotic use in farming, and should inform future interventions to reduce unnecessary prescriptions. Talking to vets and farmers is fascinating. Farming is a whole new world to me, and I’m learning so much. But can I advise on the behaviour of a moo-dy cow? Not a chance!