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Thursday, August 9, 2012

Veterinary Shortage? Not So Much. And That's A Problem.

For many years there has been a debate in the veterinary profession in the US as to whether or not there is a "shortage" of veterinarians.  I have seen the pendulum swing to both extremes, from "OMG, we're not going to have enough to provide for clients!" to "Yeah, you're going to have a hard time finding a job."  Recently an extensive study was published that looked into the subject, which I read in the July issue of DVM Newsmagazine.

Is there a shortage of veterinarians?  The study clearly says "no".  But even with that simple of an answer it doesn't give all of the details.  We have seen signs for years that the food animal industry is lacking in vets as fewer people pursue this as a career (in fact, I've blogged about it a few times).  The recent study indicates that there are unfilled positions in research and public sector jobs (epidemiology, food safety, public health, etc.).  The main area where there is an over-supply of vets is in the companion animal field, and even that can be regional.  But it's pretty clear that the evidence is building that we are graduating more veterinarians than are needed, especially those working with pets.

Depite this fact vet schools are looking to increase their class sizes, hoping to offset funding deficits due to a decline in state funding.  There are also states looking to open new vet schools with the idea of meeting the needs in the under-supported areas.  These philosopies will assuredly lead to even more of a disparity between supply and demand for vets.

So why does this matter?  The study reached the conclusion that the cost of becoming a vet is at a "crisis point", with the ratio of debt to starting salaries over 2 to 1.  Newly graduating vets are facing a huge challenge in simply surviving and paying back their loans, and the problem is only getting worse.  We're not talking about whether someone has to choose between a Toyota versus a Lexus...we're talking day-to-day existence.  Nobody should be surprised at this trend, as we've been following it for more than a decade.  The study predicts that as people see a horrible return on investment for their veterinary education the quality of applicants will decline.  No matter how much someone loves animals, if they can barely pay their bills in a job they will likely look elsewhere for a career.  The combination of these facts and this trend means that we may see less qualified vets (though I do have my own doubts about this) and an increase in the costs of veterinary care (have to pay back the bills somehow).

So what is the solution?  The study gives many suggestions, which for brevity's sake I won't repeat here.  Personally I don't think we need to be expanding class sizes or opening new schools with news like this.  In fact, I would venture to say that it is utterly irresponsible of universities and state governments to do so.  We should consider "tracking", guiding people down one aspect of medicine or another, therefore allowing us to have a certain number of applicants in a given field.  And there should be strong incentives to practice in under-served areas of the profession through loan forgiveness programs like we see in professions such as teaching and human medicine.

All of this should be a wake-up call for anyone considering becoming a veterinarian, at least here in the US.  We're seeing debt rise many times faster than salaries while jobs are becoming harder to find.  You need to think very long and hard about going into the profession at this time and look very realistically at the financial prospects.  For the sake of my colleagues and the profession I really hope that the leaders in the industry and universities will look hard at the data and come up with real solutions.