Eleanor M. Green
DVM, DACVIM, DABVP
Dr. Eleanor M. Green is the former dean of veterinary medicine at Texas A&M University and is a senior adviser and consultant with Animal Policy Group. She is a founding board member and co-chair of the Veterinary Virtual Care Association and was a founding faculty member of the Mississippi State University College of Veterinary Medicine. Dr. Green served as president of three national organizations: the American Association of Equine Practitioners, the American Board of Veterinary Practitioners and the American Association of Veterinary Clinicians.Read Articles Written by Eleanor M. Green
Did the headline get your attention? What was your reaction? The headline is deliberately provocative, but the underlying intent is to spark new conversations within veterinary medicine about what a remarkable profession we have. Viewing the profession through a different lens, we are better equipped to address the challenges more effectively and enjoyably.
The headlines today are dominated by descriptions of challenges; in fact, veterinary medicine is called “a profession in crisis.” Complex, intertwining issues span the waterfront, such as wellness, work-life balance, debt, salary, access to care, contextual care, customer obsession, DEI, corporatization, globalization, telemedicine and regulatory landscapes. Planning the future of veterinary practice and education in an ever-changing world can be deterred by what are perceived as roadblock challenges. Veterinarian recruitment and retention are fundamental to the profession but can be defied in an environment where gloom receives top billing.
I polled veterinarians of various ages, asking:
- What do you like best about the veterinary profession?
- What do you like least?
- If you could change one thing, what would it be?
- Would you encourage others to become veterinarians?
The answers to the first three questions had common themes. Veterinarians said they are committed to the human-animal bond and fulfilled by:
- Being a part of the happiness that animals bring to people.
- Taking care of client needs.
- Experiencing happy outcomes.
They enjoy variety in veterinary practice, the intrigue of unraveling cases and never having a dull moment. They appreciate the work ethic within the profession. A striking comment was that empathy is plentiful within veterinary medicine in a world where many have lost empathy.
Some replied that finding things they didn’t like is difficult. Others said they like least the sad moments. “Turning ‘it’ on and off” quickly, oscillating between the joys of new puppies and the sadness of geriatric patients facing euthanasia, is distressing. The chief negative client contributors are bad attitudes, an inability or unwillingness to pay, and a lack of respect for the veterinarians’ medical training. Also worrisome are staff shortages and the management of people, money and conflict.
Topping the list of things to change are the negative social media postings about individuals and the practice. The public’s misperception that “it’s all about money” takes its toll. Veterinarians wish clients understood the value of DVMs, the depth of their medical training, the actual cost of care and the negative impact when clients disrespect the staff. They also want improvements in wellness issues, compassion fatigue and the suicide rate.
As for encouraging people to enter the profession, some are unabashedly positive. Others aren’t.
Caution From Within
How prevailing is the active discouragement of young people interested in becoming veterinarians? As dean of veterinary medicine at Texas A&M University, I addressed the PreVet Club every year. Annually, I asked 500 pre-veterinary students, “Have you been discouraged from becoming a veterinarian?” Shockingly, nearly all had. Who discouraged them? Veterinarians.
This means nearly all our pre-veterinary students — our potential colleagues, our future, the individuals who can help address many of the issues facing the profession — are told not to enter the profession by veterinarians.
The case for aspiring equine veterinarians is even worse. Once they forge ahead to become veterinary students, many are told not to go into equine practice and to choose companion animal practice instead. By whom? Practicing veterinarians and faculty alike.
Fortunately, many do not heed such advice. I did not and cannot imagine doing anything else. This Chinese proverb resonates within me: “Find a job you love and you will never have to work a day in your life.”
There has not been a single day of my career when I wasn’t excited about going to work. Yes, there were challenges, conflicts, long hours and disappointments, but the benefits far outweighed any of those life encounters.
A Shared Love of Animals
Society’s views of animals underpin an escalating desire for high-quality care, regardless of species. Clients are willing to sacrifice for it, and they still see veterinarians as the primary source of care. That is good news for veterinarians disappointed by client unwillingness to support the care they are well-trained to deliver.
Veterinary health care today rivals human health care. The two professions share digital health, innovative technologies, advanced diagnostics and cutting-edge treatments. Within veterinary medicine are unlimited paths for fulfillment: practice, discovery, education, species conservation, feeding the world and more. Veterinarians can shape and reshape the opportunities throughout their careers or follow one path.
As the economy ebbs and flows, job security for veterinarians endures and even surpasses that of many other careers. In 2020, during COVID-19, the national unemployment rate approached 15%, while the U.S. market for veterinarians remained strong. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics expects a 17% job growth rate for veterinarians by 2026, more than twice that of other occupations. Veterinary medicine is one of the few professions in which unemployment is virtually non-existent.
According to data from the American Association of Veterinary Medical Colleges, the number of student veterinary seats has increased an average of 2% a year since 1980. From 2011 to 2022, the number of first-year seats rose an average of 2.6% a year. The growth in veterinary students over the past decade is more than threefold higher than the rise in the U.S. population.
Public opinion of veterinarians is exceptional. They are viewed as trustworthy, honest, competent and compassionate. One study revealed that veterinarians were regarded more favorably than physicians, being more approachable, patient, understanding and sympathetic. Widespread positive opinions of veterinarians help offset the intermittent hostile clients.
Veterinary medicine offers a viable platform for substantial impact, from individuals to society. This gives veterinarians meaning. They are uniquely educated with a One Health perspective that considers animal, human and environmental health. Their research drives knowledge forward for animal and human health. They are the experts on animal welfare and the well-being of all species. They work with animals and the people who love and care for them.
Confronted with discouraging headlines, how do we best address the challenges with optimism and fulfillment? These four ways:
- Use a balanced perspective to perceive reality accurately.
- Find and share bright spots.
- Recognize that both challenge and meaning contribute to happiness.
- Cultivate self-awareness.
Gary Burnison, CEO of the management consulting firm Korn Ferry, shared these good words to live by: “Leadership is at its best when we supply hope, not fuel despair; encourage, not discourage; unite, not divide; construct, not destroy.”
I look forward to tomorrow in this profession!