Money needed to meet public-health DVM shortage, experts say

Money needed to meet public-health DVM shortage, experts say

Feb 27, 2009
By staff
Washington -- More money, and lots of it, is the only way to avoid a dramatic shortage of public-health veterinarians that could put the entire nation at risk, a Senate committee was told.

Eight witnesses testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs on Thursday in response to a Government Accountability Office report released earlier this month stating the federal government was unaware of an imminent shortage of federal and public-health veterinarians.

"We can pay now or we can pay later," testified Dr. W. Ron DeHaven, chief executive officer of the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA). "If we choose later, that payment will be exponentially high."

Public-health veterinarians earn $37,000 less than practice owners, and the disparity is even greater when looking at veterinarians in academia and industry.

The current level of pay for public-health veterinarians is not high enough to recruit or retain them, despite an interest in the field, DeHaven said. High student debt only contributes to the problem.

Dr. Michael Gilsdorf, executive vice president of the National Association of Federal Veterinarians (NAFV), said he is part of a small but vital part of the veterinary work force - the 3,000 or so DVMs in public health.

They are on the frontlines of food safety for the nation, among many other duties, but Gilsdorf knows agencies are having a difficult time filling vacancies. "There are more jobs in all of veterinary medicine than there are veterinarians," he says.

The problem is especially true in public health.

Gilsdorf suggests improving the compensation package for federal veterinarians, improving salary and professional development and providing more continuing education.

What's disappointing is that the lack of veterinarians in public health isn't due to a lack of interest, according to Dr. Marguerite Pappaioanou, executive director of the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges (AAVMC).

Twenty-two of the 28 veterinary colleges offer joint degrees in public health, she reports. Hundreds of students participate in trips to biomedical research facilities, Plum Island and the National Institutes of Health, and they are excited about what they learn.

"Despite that great interest, the federal government loses them," she says. Pappaioanou would like to see more funding for veterinary colleges so they can expand their class sizes for the first time in decades. She wants the GAO recommendations enforced. She wants money appropriated for the loan repayment program approved in 2003, and she wants scholarships for those entering public health as well as level salaries.

"The findings of the GAO report show significant challenges," DeHaven warns, "and significant opportunities."