Take a look at the numbers—the veterinary shortage is real. There are presently about 7,000 openings for veterinarians across the country, with the number of openings for veterinary technicians even higher—and not enough veterinary professionals to fill these positions. Some studies estimate that there are 3 jobs for every one person in veterinary medicine. It makes sense when you consider there are only about 3,200 new veterinarians graduating each year, from just 32 veterinary schools.
“The consequences for not implementing solutions to this shortage or not taking it seriously enough are severe,” warned Mark Cushing, founder of Animal Policy Group, in the session he co-presented with Aimee St. Arnaud at The Spring Conference for Animal Welfare Advancement.
Potential results of an ongoing veterinary shortage include:
- Vet healthcare prices will inevitably continue to increase
- Access to care will be limited due to prices and lack of coverage
- Burnout among veterinary professionals—whether staff at a nonprofit or private practice—will continue to increase
- Shelters and humane societies will increasingly be unable to compete with private practices for veterinarians
- Pets will not get the care they need
The good news is that solutions are available. Short-term solutions involve strategies that shelters can use to recruit and retain veterinary professionals. St. Arnaud shared these during the conference session, so conference registrants can log into the conference site, find the session under Day 2 and access the recording anytime through the end of August. She also covered hiring practices in a free webinar earlier this year, open to all, Recruiting & Retaining Veterinarians.
Broadening the lens to look at the systems surrounding veterinary education & training, Cushing posed several long-term solutions to reverse the veterinary shortage.
Solution #1: Start fully utilizing veterinary technicians
The situation with veterinary technicians? “They’re underpaid and they’re undervalued,” said Cushing. “All of the skills they have and are certified for don’t get utilized, which leaves them lacking a sustainable career path.” A recent survey, in fact, shows that vet techs in practices use roughly 50 percent of the skills they were trained to do.
One obvious place where vet techs can play an important role: “We know that the demand for telemedicine is rising in every sector of the pet space,” said Cushing. “Most of those telemed services can be delivered by vet techs.”
Solution #2: MA in Veterinary Clinical Care
“Human medicine has professions from two-year community degree RNs all the way up to postdoctoral doctors, and everything in between,” explained Cushing. “Veterinary medicine has vet techs, and it has veterinarians. We need somebody in the middle.”
The master’s program in Veterinary Clinical Care would solve that. A pilot of Lincoln Memorial University, the program will launch in January. Here’s a high-level look:
- The degree will encompass medical training, clinical care training, and management and communications skills
- Annual tuition of $25K (Cushing is hopeful there will be scholarships and funding available)
- It will be taught online, so students don’t have to move or leave their current practice or job in order to enroll
- Discussions are underway to include a shelter track; this would include clinical-related courses with direct application to shelter scenarios
- A BA or BS is NOT required for the degree; however, prerequisites will include three university-level science courses
Solution #3: Changes to the Veterinary Education Model
With the acceptance rate for vet school at about 10-15% (compared to about 40% acceptance rate for med school), competition is fierce for the limited spots in the limited number of schools. “We need to increase class size,” stated Cushing. “We need an accreditation body that understands that this shortage can only be addressed with veterinary schools producing more veterinarians.”
He also proposed that schools continue using the virtual training tools they adopted out of necessity during the pandemic. “The cost of delivering veterinary education doesn’t need to keep rising—and it might even decrease!”
And finally, Cushing mentioned that some vet schools are now allowing fourth-year students to take their clinical year outside of an academic teaching hospital and into practices, including shelters and humane societies. “This creates relationships that lead to jobs and gives shelters a first look at very talented fourth-year students.” Simply put, “Schools need to do this more frequently.”
“All in all, it’s gonna be a long-term battle,” says Cushing. We’ll be sure to share more ways we in the field can be proactive. Additional information on the master’s program, for example, should be available early fall. Stay tuned.
Photo: Facebook/Association of Shelter Veterinarians