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 serves on the boards of Pet Peace of Mind, WellHaven Pet Health and the Lincoln Memorial veterinary college. He is president-elect of the North American Veterinary Community.Read Articles Written by Bob Lester
Economic forecasts consistently point to a persistent shortage of veterinary professionals, largely due to America’s growing love affair with pets. For example, Animal Health Economics reported last year that maximizing the productivity of companion animal practices today would require doubling the number of credentialed veterinary technicians. Consider further that spending on pet health care services is predicted to increase by 33% over the next 10 years.
Long- and short-term solutions to the shortage of veterinary technicians include:
- Increasing the number of graduates.
- Embracing technology such as telemedicine.
- Improving efficiencies.
- Supporting team-based health care delivery.
- Taking better care of and fully utilizing existing veterinary technicians.
- Retaining our existing veterinary technicians.
I’m encouraged to see progress, accelerated by the pandemic, in our profession’s move to team-based health care. I see more and more duties moving from the domain of the DVM to the credentialed veterinary technician. It’s about time. Human medicine took such a path decades ago. However, fully implementing a robust, team-based approach requires a professional career ladder allowing for skills growth, more job responsibilities and increased compensation.
Human Medicine Gets It Done
Let’s dig deeper into team-based health care delivery and the academic building blocks necessary to build out the veterinary team and provide more opportunities for career advancement.
I find human nursing’s academic career ladder instructive in the case of lengthening our credentialed veterinary technicians’ ladder and furthering their opportunities for career growth. Compare the top two tables below.
Human health care has developed a robust, multirung ladder while, at best, the veterinary profession has a step stool. For example, nurses can earn six figures in human health care, depending on their level of education. That’s a great incentive to move a foot higher on the ladder.
What can the veterinary profession do to add rungs and reinforce existing steps? Let’s start by differentiating the two-year associate veterinary technician degree from the four-year bachelor’s. Little difference is apparent between graduates of either program in the workplace or as recognized by regulatory bodies.
Furthermore, let’s lean more on veterinary assistant programs approved by the National Association of Veterinary Technicians in America. These are both in-person and virtual, cost-effective, and offer an accessible first rung of the ladder. But how about a master’s-level program leading to advanced practice technicians, much like nurse practitioners and physician assistants in two-legged medicine?
Great news! Approved veterinary assistant programs are abundant and affordable. (Learn more at bit.ly/3hDGiMu.) Appalachian State and other institutions are working to differentiate better the associate veterinary technician degree from the bachelor’s degree.
And here’s more great news:
- Lincoln Memorial University launched a master-level veterinary technician program requiring a bachelor’s degree and veterinary technician credentialing for admission.
- The University of Missouri has a master’s degree in veterinary science.
- Colorado State University and others are considering master’s degree programs.
The veterinary technology profession might benefit significantly from having advanced, trained people with graduate-level knowledge in nursing and technical theory and skills. Any profession has difficulty advancing when the highest level of education is most often the associate degree.
Graduate-level credentialed veterinary technicians could further become the experts in their fields, freeing up veterinarians to be veterinarians.
While we’re at it, let’s not forget veterinary technician specialty certifications. NAVTA recognizes 16 specialties (bit.ly/3YNp7sH). Kudos to the farsighted technicians who built out the VTS specialties and career opportunities.
In addition, let’s not overlook the obvious. We don’t utilize our credentialed veterinary technicians to the top of their licenses. So, doctors, don’t wait to delegate until more ladder rungs are in place. Instead, honor and empower your credentialed technicians today while we build more rungs. We can do both. How could it all work? Check out the bottom table to the right.
How to Treat Blood Loss
Our profession is bleeding talent. As medical professionals, we know how to stop the bleeding in patients and replace lost blood. Similarly, we need to retain today’s remarkable credentialed veterinary technicians and simultaneously replace losses with more rungs on the career ladder.
What results from building out the ladder? Longer, more rewarding careers for all veterinary professionals, the ability to help more pets, better medical outcomes, more access to veterinary care, better career pathing, fewer non-veterinary professionals providing care, less burnout and compassion fatigue, better personal wellness, higher compensation, improved efficiencies, and greater profitability. Clients win, pets win, and veterinary professionals win.
Here are more ideas:
- Standardize credentials: CVT? LVT? RVT? Twelve states don’t even require credentialing.
- Title protection: Most states and jurisdictions don’t do it.
- Better distinguish two- and four-year degrees: Perhaps the two-year degree focuses on the technical side, and the four-year expands into the ’ologies — pharmacology, physiology, pathology and clinical decision support.
- Standardized examinations: We currently have the Veterinary Technician National Examination for both associate and bachelor’s degree graduates. Let’s further distinguish between the two- and four-year graduates using different standardized exams. Further, let’s build out a standardized exam for master’s degree graduates. Passing such exams would validate an individual’s knowledge and skills, leading to veterinary boards granting licensure and defining, broadening and distinguishing the scope of practice between associate, bachelor’s and master’s graduates.
- Interprofessional education: Train veterinarians and veterinary technicians side by side. Purdue, Michigan State and Mississippi State do it. Let’s teach doctors to delegate and lead a team of health care professionals and teach veterinary technicians to work in a team. I submit that this approach should be an AVMA Council on Education standard for veterinary school accreditation.
I’m reminded that the veterinary technician profession is only about 50 years old, a relative toddler compared to other health care professions. Over time, it will continue to evolve in response to society’s needs. Job one remains taking better care of and better utilizing today’s credentialed veterinary technicians. Honor, empower and compensate them. We must stop the bleeding. At the same time, let’s turn today’s career step stool into a full-blown career ladder. We can do it.
“The rung of a ladder was never meant to rest upon, but only to hold a man’s foot long enough to enable him to put the other somewhat higher.”
Thomas Henry Huxley, 19th-century English biologist and a contemporary of Charles Darwin