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Let’s get to work

What does the pet health care industry want to do about acute shortages of veterinarians and nurses?

Let’s get to work
Older veterinarians are retiring at a rate approaching 2,000 a year, according to AVMA researchers.

The last public debate about the number of veterinarians in America took place more than four years ago in Denver at the American Veterinary Medical Association annual meeting. I won’t forget it for two reasons. I debated three people: Drs. Paul Pion, Jim Wilson and Dennis McCurnin. A one-on-three debate is always interesting. But what stands out today is that the topic was the overpopulation of veterinarians.

The debate seems like a decade ago, but it was July 2014 and the trio on the other side represented the majority of veterinarians who believed that the United States faced a dangerous overpopulation of veterinarians and that we needed to cut back on the number of schools and class sizes. Undergraduates needed to be warned that choosing a veterinary career was the wrong bet.

I couldn’t have disagreed more with that view, and I challenged it, but it was the culmination of six years of the veterinary establishment’s lamenting that the sky was falling. Little did they all know the argument already was over, and they lost (thankfully).

More People Have Pets

The key was demographics. Sixty-five percent of American households owned pets — it’s now 68 percent — and the U.S. population was rising, unlike peer countries Japan, Russia, Great Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and even China. If America kept growing, then how could we imagine that we needed fewer, rather than more, veterinarians?

Better yet, despite our best efforts to convince pet owners of the value of regular veterinary care, we knew that at least 40 percent of pets did not visit a veterinary annually. Which meant that we had unmet demand, which logic tells us calls for more veterinarians.

What kind of message would the profession have sent to the public if we announced that veterinarians wanted to shrink supply? You didn’t have to be an economist to know that doing this would mean higher prices and that veterinarians were more worried about income than providing quality care to pets who needed it.

Demographic benefits were not limited to overall population growth. Millennials were hitting the workforce post-college and represented the largest demographic block in the country, even larger than baby boomers. And guess what? Millennials wanted pets and wanted more veterinarians to provide guidance and care, and they were prepared to delay buying a home and getting married if it meant they would have to delay having a pet.

This bonanza, coupled with overall U.S. economic growth, drove pet ownership and demand for veterinarians even higher. But we’re not done.

We also began to take notice that pet owners, especially millennials, wanted instant, 24/7 access to veterinary advice, so we discovered the value of digital tools and telemedicine in an effort led by the Veterinary Innovation Council. This meant opportunity for more veterinarians and veterinary staff.

All this took place as more and more articles told the story of the human-animal bond, led by the Human Animal Bond Research Institute and the rollout of its research programs. Wherever you looked in this vast country — from dog parks to Manhattan sidewalks to stores and workplaces — you saw pets, mainly cats and dogs, and plenty of them. Every single indicator of pet industry health was on the rise: veterinary care, nutrition, pharmaceuticals, grooming, boarding, diagnostics, pet products and retail (at least online).

Help Wanted

So that brings us to 2019 and the answer that virtually every veterinary practice gives to the simple question “What is your greatest challenge?” The answer: “I cannot find any vets or vet techs.”

This refrain echoes all over the country, just as veterinary colleges face great difficulty finding faculty. General practices, specialty hospitals, emergency clinics — you name it and the problem is the same. We do not have enough veterinarians.

Older veterinarians are retiring at a rate approaching 2,000 a year, according to AVMA researchers. Veterinary work weeks have shortened for generational reasons, pet life spans have lengthened, requiring more care, and pet owners want answers and quality care.

However, the vast majority of colleges of veterinary medicine cannot, perhaps due to facility limitations, or will not, in some cases, grow fast enough.

As for veterinary nurses, the profession knows that the majority of practices are not using credentialed vet techs to even 50 percent of their capacity (based upon their training and expertise), so turnover rates get worse and the average vet tech leaves the profession after six years.

Nothing is happening except the Veterinary Nurse Initiative, which some veterinarians and trade associations have challenged out of fear that veterinarians might have to pay their staffs higher salaries. That seems like a fair trade if the title and expertise of vet techs are better understood, and better valued, by pet owners.

Who Will Take the Lead?

That’s where we are in 2019. Veterinary colleges (except for a few), veterinary accrediting bodies and many veterinary associations are not prepared to lead on this issue, perhaps comfortable with current levels of supply. But pet owners won’t wait forever, nor should we deny young Americans the opportunity to pursue professions they desire and serve a growing pet population needing veterinary care.

Animal health companies have a powerful stake in this issue and its solution. Pharmaceutical manufacturers, pet nutrition suppliers, distributors, diagnostic and technology platforms, and veterinary practice groups cannot afford to sit on the sidelines and wait for veterinary associations and colleges, or their accreditors, to take action.

There’s no need for further debate about veterinary overpopulation. It’s time to decide what we’re going to do about the shortages of veterinarians and vet techs.

Politics & Policy columnist Mark Cushing is founding partner of the Animal Policy Group, serving a wide range of animal health interests as well as veterinary schools on accreditation matters. He is legislative consultant to the Veterinary Nurse Initiative and is a member of the Today’s Veterinary Business editorial advisory board.