Politics & Policy columnist Mark Cushing is a political strategist, lawyer, founding partner of the Animal Policy Group and founding member of the Veterinary Virtual Care Association. Since 2004, he has specialized in animal health, animal welfare, and veterinary educational issues and accreditation. He is the author of “Pet Nation: The Inside Story of How Companion Animals Are Transforming Our Homes, Culture and Economy.”Read Articles Written by Mark Cushing
As we near the finish of the first quarter of 2023, it’s time to look at eight industry and professional issues receiving little or no attention. So, let’s at least get the conversation started and try to move the needle. The critical issues below should keep us busy for a while.
1. Not Enough Veterinarians
Data points to this alarming trend: Pet owners, particularly those who are low income, are surrendering cats and dogs due to an inability to access veterinary care. At some point, the failure to schedule an appointment leads many people to sadly conclude that they must relinquish their pet to a shelter or animal-control agency so that the pet receives veterinary care. This desperate measure of last resort places enormous stress on animal welfare facilities at a time when they cannot afford to hire new veterinarians.
Let’s stop downplaying or ignoring the acute shortage of veterinarians, which some national leaders refer to as a “blip.” Instead, let’s attack the problem before it becomes rampant.
2. Reciprocity and Cross-State Licensure
Over half of the states maintain antiquated and, frankly, anti-competitive statutes in their veterinary practice acts that make practicing in or moving to another state extremely difficult for licensed veterinarians. The barriers include arbitrary requirements of three to 10 years of continuous service in one state before a veterinarian may receive a license in another state without retaking the North American Veterinary Licensing Examination. The only beneficiary is an in-state veterinarian fearful of competition. Such misguided fear should evaporate with the onslaught of chronic veterinarian shortages.
State veterinary medical associations must step up, examine their laws, and support legislation or board rules that would remove protectionist policies and welcome any veterinarian needing to or willing to move across state lines. The veterinarian’s application fee will be well-received by cash-strapped state boards, and pet owners might have an easier time scheduling an appointment.
3. In-Home Euthanasia Technicians
The veterinary profession has stepped up in the past decade to provide pet owners with humane, in-home services at the end of an animal’s life. Such hospice veterinary practices make a significant difference for pet owners at a deeply stressful time. (I can vouch for it from personal experience.) Unfortunately, states limit the services to licensed veterinarians, except in some states where shelters and animal-control agencies may perform euthanasia using non-veterinary personnel.
Why not allow credentialed veterinary technicians with euthanasia training certificates to perform the services? Veterinarians wouldn’t have to leave their busy clinics and could supervise the technician via real-time digital communications. In addition, Drug Enforcement Administration safeguards tied to veterinarian oversight could be secured. Many states recognize euthanasia technician programs, so what we need now is the vision to extend the benefits to practices employing those trained and credentialed veterinary technicians.
4. Limited Services and Mobile Vets
Only a handful of states have adopted rules welcoming alternative forms of practice, such as limited services and mobile veterinary medicine. A bias favoring brick-and-mortar clinics might have made sense for decades, but the threat to them is gone. This is one piece of the access-to-care puzzle.
State veterinary medical associations and boards should encourage more health care choices.
5. Pet-Friendly Housing
If you’re looking for a community service project that addresses an immediate need, then this suggestion is for you. Explore how many low-income rental properties, including public housing projects, in your city or state are pet friendly. Prepare to be disappointed or shocked. At a time when low-income Americans most need to enjoy the human-animal bond, they are met with the cold reality that so many public housing projects don’t allow pets or charge unaffordable fees. The Human Animal Bond Research Institute shared data demonstrating that pets are a bargain for private and public apartment owners, yet the bias persists, and low-income pet owners face discrimination daily.
Everyone in the pet and animal welfare world will be winners if we step up and overcome the challenge.
6. At-Home Telemedicine DVMs
The United States reportedly has significant numbers of licensed veterinarians (an estimated 10,000 to 20,000) who are unable, unwilling or not incentivized to work in clinics. At a time of critical veterinarian shortages, why don’t we do everything possible to provide a meaningful opportunity for licensed veterinarians to work from home? That means telemedicine, of course, and we could require, if necessary, that the doctors be connected in some way to a practice to ensure the continuity of services.
Such a deployment won’t solve the veterinarian shortage, but it could make a difference to pet owners, doctors and practice owners.
7. Underrepresented Minorities
Every veterinary conference highlights the underrepresentation of minorities in veterinary practice and veterinary schools. And the same applies to the disparity in pet ownership by certain diverse groups.
It’s time to step up and fund the research necessary to understand the underpinnings of those problems and identify solutions. Too many diversity, equity and inclusion conversations swirl around anecdotes, which can be helpful. However, couldn’t we make a difference if we had an in-depth understanding of the causes and real-world answers?
We enter 2023 with momentum from legislative victories concerning veterinarians and CBD in Nevada and California. Nevada’s new law authorizes a veterinarian to recommend and administer hemp-based cannabinoids containing less than 0.3% THC, in conformance with what Congress approved in the 2018 Farm Bill. What’s unclear is whether Nevada will allow veterinarians to “dispense” hemp-based cannabinoids containing less than 0.3% THC. California, meanwhile, passed comprehensive cannabis legislation, and the California Veterinary Medical Board made clear that hemp-based cannabinoid supplements are not illegal and may be dispensed by licensed veterinarians.
Given all that, veterinarians in many states remain confused or uncertain about what they can or cannot do with CBD despite growing research into the value of cannabinoids in addressing pet health issues.
Let’s make 2023 a year to take major steps beyond Nevada and California.
According to the Veterinary Hospital Managers Association, nearly two-thirds of practices surveyed reported that their credentialed veterinary technicians were permitted “to perform all the tasks they are legally allowed to perform” in their state.