Creative Disruption columnist Dr. Bob Lester is the chief medical officer at WellHaven Pet Health, a former practice owner and a founding member of Banfield Pet Hospital and the Lincoln Memorial University College of Veterinary Medicine. He is president of the North American Veterinary Community and serves on the boards of Pet Peace of Mind, WellHaven Pet Health and the Lincoln Memorial veterinary college.Read Articles Written by Bob Lester
Knowing that only fools predict the future and knowing further that I qualify as a fool — my kids regularly remind me — I’ll take a stab at 10 veterinary profession trends to watch. But first, let’s look quickly at the present. We have so much to be proud of, starting with longer pet lifespans, the ever-growing human-animal bond, advances in medicine, record pet numbers, fewer euthanasias and empty shelters. The list goes on. But what lies ahead? Peter Drucker, the famous educator, author and consultant, said, “The only thing we know about the future is that it will be different.”
Here are the 10 trends I will be following.
1. The Workforce Shortage
It’s not going away. Pet numbers and pet lifespans will continue to increase, and America’s love affair with pets will continue to grow. The investment community expects the pet space to triple over the next 10 years. Triple! The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts a 17% growth in veterinary profession jobs.
However, a recent report from Animal Health Economics predicts a shortfall of nearly 15,000 companion animal veterinarians by 2030. The ever-increasing demand for veterinary services will necessitate:
- Increasing veterinary class sizes.
- Enrolling several class cohorts each year.
- Opening new veterinary schools with different educational models.
- Retaining and empowering our veterinary technicians/nurses better than we do now.
- Moving to team health care delivery.
- Adopting midlevel providers.
- Embracing new efficiency-enhancing technologies.
The workforce shortage will continue to be the rate-limiting factor in our profession’s growth and ability to meet the needs of society.
2. The Rise of the Connected Pet
Sensors will continuously measure and monitor multiple physiologic, lifestyle, and nutritional data points. Pets will be connected to smart feeders, water bowls, litter boxes, wearables, cameras, leashes and toys that continually monitor the animals’ status. The data will be collected and analyzed, and the devices will alert pet owners and veterinary professionals about abnormalities, disturbing trends, treatment progress, emergencies and signs of early disease. Parameters outside the normal heart rate, activity level, rest patterns, calories burned, gait, facial expression, cortisol and more will be flagged. Imagine a time when connected pet products translate dog speak into English, like with the dog Doug in the movie “Up” — “Hi, I just met you, and I love you!”
State regulators will move into the 21st century. Color me an optimist, but I see the future veterinarian-client-patient relationship allowing for:
- More veterinary discretion.
- Veterinary technician/nurse license protection.
- License portability.
- State boards’ permitting more duties for licensed technicians/nurses.
- Recognition of midlevel providers.
State regulatory bodies will catch up with changes in medicine and society. Witness current progress in Ontario, New Jersey and Michigan.
4. The Bond
The human-animal bond will grow deeper with the recognition of the health benefits associated with pet ownership. New research from the Human Animal Bond Research Institute shows that 95% of pet owners globally think of their pets as part of the family. HABRI research further indicates that 87% of pet owners believe that having a pet improves their mental or physical health. Additionally, 20% of pet owners say their doctor or therapist recommended
getting a pet, and 91% say they are more likely to maintain their pet’s health when they better understand the human-animal bond. As veterinary professionals, we are a critical part of family health care.
5. Veterinary Education
Vet ed will move from knowledge-based to competency-based. We’ll see asynchronous learning, more hybrid-distributed clinical programs, dual admissions, a move to virtual classrooms, and more focus on hands-on clinical and professional skills such as communication. New and emerging veterinary schools will embrace these new models. We will continue to enjoy record numbers of student applicants as the value of pets in families grows.
Veterinary hospital consolidators will consolidate. Five or six primary consolidators will emerge from the current 60-plus U.S. corporate practices. It’s happened in the U.K. Investment in all things pet related will continue. Veterinary group practices will be publicly traded. Independent general practices will still make up a significant number of veterinary hospitals, but their revenue share will continue to decline. Good? Bad? I see a little of both.
My boomer generation’s legacy of work first, life second will thankfully be replaced by subsequent generations’ wisdom in putting life first, work second. More work-from-home options will emerge for veterinary professionals. Workplace well-being will become the primary focus of progressive employers who wish to attract and retain great talent. Personal needs will outweigh professional demands. Asking for help in the workplace will be a safe action.
We’ll move from our historical roots of generalized care for all creatures great and small to a future of segmented care for some creatures great and small. By that, I mean a profession historically reliant on generalization (primary care for all creatures) will segment into new care models for underserved sectors — areas like urgent care, dental only, veterinary technician/nurse delivery, spay/neuter, wellness walk-in, non-profit community practice, telehealth, concierge, mobile and more. This is a good thing. We’ll offer both consumers and providers more choices as well as lower barriers to care.
9. Preventive Care
Tomorrow’s pet owners will insist that their fur babies not get sick. They will welcome preventive care. The care often will be delivered through wellness plans and augmented with wearable technology. Clients will be more motivated to prioritize pet health through regular exams, nutritional and behavior advice, parasite prevention, and immunizations. We will finally shift from primarily reactive care to primarily proactive care. Incidentally, as we embrace preventive care, pets will live longer, healthier lives, and we will mitigate the overload experienced in emergency and urgent care.
10. Team Health Care Delivery
Veterinary technicians/nurses will gain the status they deserve. A team-based approach to veterinary medical care will finally overtake the old model of one doctor, one exam room and one patient every 20 minutes. New midlevel providers will join the team. Late to the party, the veterinary profession will embrace team health care delivery like every other health care profession has done.
The future of our profession will continue to be relationship-driven, but the relationships will not be the sole domain of the veterinarian. Instead, they will expand to the entire team with an assist from technology.
The future is different but bright. Opportunities will continue to be abundant. Be ready to change, adapt, listen and learn. The future is ours to make. President Abraham Lincoln said it well: “The best way to predict the future is to create it.”
Our profession has so much to be proud of today. Let’s create an even brighter tomorrow.
According to the American Association of Veterinary Medical Colleges, women comprised 36% of the enrollment at U.S. colleges of veterinary medicine in 1980 and 80.5% in 2022.