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Opportunities and challenges

Pet owners are lining up for services — great! — but what if we can’t meet the demand? Either way, we need to root out bad vets and figure out where we stand on CBD.

Opportunities and challenges
Let’s make CBD policies a national priority for veterinary medicine in 2020 and provide practices and pet owners with practical, sustainable rules of the road.

There’s something special about a new decade. The view is longer — 10 years, of course — and generational change lies at the heart of many conversations. If you doubt this, think about the veterinary profession on Jan. 1, 2010, and today, and then list the companies, practices and people no longer with us or involved in the industry. Consider who arrived on the scene.

How would you describe the generational shift from Jan. 1, 2010, to Dec. 31, 2019? Baby-boomer veterinarians began to retire in droves (nearly 2,000 a year), and millennials came of age, finishing college, entering the workforce, moving up the career ladder and becoming the largest pet-owning demographic group in American history. They are more devoted to pets, more committed to owning pets, more desirous to find good veterinarians and spend money on human-quality health care, and more interested in traveling with their pets. I call that a busy decade, but why would we expect the next 10 years to be any different?

Here’s my best shot at predicting changes coming down the pike, issues that won’t go away or surely will pop up, and opportunities begging for attention.

1. Veterinarians Will Have to Deal With Good Times That Last

Handling success isn’t always easy. But still, you’d rather win than lose, right? This might be the greatest challenge facing U.S. veterinarians in 2020.

The veterinary establishment and many, if not most, of its members came out of the 2008 recession convinced that we faced a rough road on all fronts. “Hunker down and keep your head above water, but don’t get your hopes up” is what we heard. Many people argued that we needed to shrink the profession. Those themes dominated veterinary conferences for much of the decade.

The forecast was wrong 10 years ago, and a downturn is even less likely over the next decade.

Consider these pieces of positive news as you assess the new year:

  • Millennials care more about their pets’ health than their own.
  • Americans were expected to spend $75.38 billion on pet services and products by the end of 2019. $80 billion isn’t far away.
  • Almost half of Ohio pet owners were expected to spend more on Christmas gifts for their animals than their partners. I’m sure other states saw similar spending patterns.
  • Pet ownership is shaping communities.
  • Pet ownership helps human heart health.
  • Pet health insurance is on the rise and in the news.
  • Millennials aren’t the only ones in love with the new pet culture. Pet ownership among aging generations is on the rise, too. In fact, baby boomers and millennials are redefining modern pet ownership.
  • Researchers have figured out that pets are good for us. (But we knew that, right?)
  • My personal favorite: Women sleep better when their dog is beside them.

Success has consequences, but first, we have to re-engineer the institutional view that the profession is a heartbeat away from bad times, that the culture of U.S. pets is a fad that surely can’t last and that millennials’ and Generation Zers’ enthusiasm for pets is ephemeral. Really?

2. Veterinarian and Vet Nurse Shortages Will Have Consequences

I’ve written about chronic employee shortages, and the data confirms what virtually every practicing veterinarian or veterinary college knows anecdotally: We have a crisis on our hands that is getting worse, not better. Practices cannot hire the veterinarians or staff members they need, or they cannot keep the ones they have. Veterinarians face personal challenges, even suicidal thoughts, in part due to burnout. All this cannot be separated from the fact that we ask too few professionals to meet client needs.

New veterinary schools are being allowed to open — Arizona and Long Island, most recently — but our accrediting body, the AVMA Council on Education, is fiercely reluctant to consider allowing schools to grow their class sizes meaningfully. In a recent case, the COE’s suggestion to one school trying to expand was to dictate that it could not graduate a larger class of any significance for eight years. How’s that for taking shortages seriously?

Meanwhile, only a handful of companies, trade associations and organizations support efforts by the National Association of Veterinary Technicians in America to make the vet tech career more attractive by adopting a uniform national credential and title. The title “registered veterinary nurse,” or RVN, would create more consumer and professional recognition of the training and board credentials behind the position. The American Veterinary Medical Association remains neutral as the American Nurses Association pounds away daily against the initiative, using political money, lobbyists and a grass-roots campaign to push the idea that no one but its members can ever use the name “nurse.”

If veterinary clients have to wait for an appointment due to staff shortages, then fewer pets will receive health care. Or other providers will step in to fill the breach. Human medicine faced this challenge, and it led to new occupations: doctors of osteopathic medicine, physician assistants, nurse practitioners. Veterinary medicine needs to learn from all this, recognize the power and opportunities it has and do something as a united force.

3. Police Yourselves, Veterinarians

I predict this decade is when the veterinary profession will be forced to face a problem we don’t like to talk about. That is, veterinary medical boards do not have the staff, financial resources or support from state attorneys general to punish bad actors and remove them from the profession. The number of stories grows each year of pets injured or killed by incompetent, reckless or just plain dangerous veterinarians. Yet many, if not most, of them keep their license and receive minor punishment.

Consider this Dec. 12, 2019, newspaper excerpt about one such case in Oregon:

“Of course, the Oregon Veterinary Medical Examining Board that returned his license in 2015 knew he had a checkered past. [My note: In the late 1970s, investigators found that he had been abusive at a California pet clinic and was sentenced to 100 days in jail for punching and kicking a German shepherd.]

“In the early 2000s, the board spent two years investigating allegations leveled against him in Oregon by former customers and employees, such as the charge that he was so impaired in his clinic one time that he fell asleep while performing surgery. The board at that time ultimately found insufficient evidence that he had treated animals inhumanely.

“The decision to reinstate (his) license was based on attorney advice,” board executive director Lori Makinen wrote this week in an email to The Oregonian, explaining why the board’s deliberations on (his) petition were not included in the documents released in response to the records request. “Communication thereon would be confidential.”

In the new American culture of pets and given the seemingly unlimited capacity of consumers to enjoy our animals every way possible, do we think millennials and Generation Z pet owners will tolerate a profession or state government unwilling to police bad actors? Do we assume that the hundreds or thousands of pet owners who lose a dog or cat due to professional negligence will shrug it off and just get another pet? The profession needs to use its growing commercial success and popularity to demand that legislatures fund state veterinary boards and force state attorneys general to support board efforts to pull the licenses of incompetent veterinarians.

4. CBD, Cannabis and the Marijuana Challenge

Here’s an issue — or opportunity — that won’t go away. Americans used marijuana before 2010, as most baby boomers and Gen Xers will confirm. But the last decade was when state after state legalized marijuana usage (medical and, increasingly, recreational). Even presidential candidates got on board. Better yet, Wall Street started investing in marijuana companies, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration took usage seriously, and neighboring Canada approved recreational use from the Pacific to the Atlantic.

But most veterinarians — make that nearly all U.S. veterinarians — went to work in January 2020 without clear guidance on what they could or should say to clients about the use of CBD remedies or products made for cats or dogs. This isn’t a crisis, but it’s a tough challenge in a culture and marketplace increasingly flooded with CBD options or choices. Unlike the pace of telemedicine conversations from 2016 to 2019, we haven’t nailed down the answers. This clearly is one of the situations where clients’ questions will be answered elsewhere if veterinarians cannot chart a clear course.

So, let’s make CBD policies a national priority for veterinary medicine in 2020 and provide practices and pet owners with practical, sustainable rules of the road.

Politics & Policy columnist Mark Cushing is founding partner of the Animal Policy Group, which serves 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.