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AVMA’s de Jong exposes ‘tough, honest truths’

The departing president says the industry faces a number of hurdles. He calls on veterinarians to “protect, promote and advance our profession.”

AVMA’s de Jong exposes ‘tough, honest truths’
Dr. John de Jong, left, and Dr. John Howe.

The outgoing president of the American Veterinary Medical Association shared what he called “some tough, honest truths” about the profession during remarks delivered to the House of Delegates.

John de Jong, DVM, speaking Aug. 2 at the AVMA convention in Washington, D.C., touched on everything from an acute shortage of veterinarians to a lack of diversity to what he saw as the questionable skill set of some veterinary school graduates.

Some people, he said, would prefer not to tackle such issues, “but we must if we are to be intellectually honest in addressing them and trying to find solutions.”

He first raised the matter of veterinarian employment.

“Many practices cannot find associates to work in them,” Dr. de Jong said. “There are seemingly not enough [full-time equivalent] veterinarians to meet the needs that are out there. A friend at one of our largest corporate groups shared with me that when they started … veterinarians worked five days a week. And that number is now 3.7 days a week and shrinking.

“Work-life balance has a lot to do with this, but is there more?”

Potentially aggravating the shortage, he said, is the fact that more than 5,000 U.S. practices employ “one to 1.5 FTE veterinarians” and gross under $750,000 a year.

“Three-fourths of these practices are owned by veterinarians 55 years or older [who are] approaching retirement age,” Dr. de Jong said. “The corporates are not interested in purchasing them, and recent graduates are also not interested in purchasing, leaving many with the prospect of working till they drop or simply and sadly closing their doors.

“While this problem is primarily rural, it’s also prevalent in suburban and even urban locations.”

He called out the lack of preparedness of some new veterinarians.

“Despite the exceptionally high quality of our educational system, I hear far too many practitioners state that new graduates in large part are lacking in surgical skills or are too easily taught to refer surgical or challenging cases to specialty hospitals,” he said.

Among other challenges facing the industry, Dr. de Jong said, are “insurmountable student debt,” “issues of wellness, depression and even suicide” and “issues of diversity and inclusion.”

“Why are there not more men in veterinary medicine?” he asked, alluding to the fact that about 85% of veterinary school students are women. “Why do we not have enough people of color entering our profession?

“Can we realistically do something about it? How can we keep our staffs, utilize then effectively and pay them a decent wage? How do we find veterinarians to work in the areas of animal production, research and public health?”

Dr. de Jong, a Massachusetts practice owner, urged veterinarians to advocate for the profession.

“We have historically always been a humble profession,” he said. “But if veterinarians are to reap more of what they deserve and [achieve] proper remuneration and work-life balances, then we all need to speak up and do what the AVMA also does for each of us: Protect, promote and advance our profession.”

His comments preceded those of his replacement, John Howe, DVM, CertAqV, who is moving up from president-elect to serve a one-year term. Dr. Howe, who manages a Grand Rapids, Minnesota, veterinary practice, told the House of Delegates that one of his focuses will be to improve communication between the AVMA and its more than 93,000 members.

“Over the past year we have seen many lapsed members rejoin the AVMA,” he said. “We must continue communicating with our members what this association can do and is doing for them, to drive those numbers even higher.”

He applauded the organization’s decision in early 2019 to form a task force that is examining how the profession can better utilize veterinary technicians.

The AVMA’s prioritizing the role of veterinary technicians included a bylaw amendment that added a credentialed veterinary technician to the Council on Veterinary Services, a seat that was filled by the election of Kenichiro Yagi, MS, RVT, VTS (ECC) (SAIM). Yagi is president-elect of the National Association of Veterinary Technicians in America.

The House of Delegates selected Wisconsin veterinarian Douglas Kratt, DVM, as the 2020-2021 president. Dr. Kratt defeated the only other candidate, AVMA board of directors chairman Gary Brown, DVM.

Ken Niedziela is editor of Today’s Veterinary Business. Email him at [email protected].