ORLANDO — How insidious is escalating veterinary student debt?
It's being likened to a kind of economic earthquake for veterinary graduates, practice owners and consumers. Now averaging about $130,000 a year, veterinary student debt will continue to climb, officials say. It's impacting starting salaries, costs of care, production, and some owners even believe the work ethic of new graduates.
A panel discussion by VetPartners at the North American Veterinary Conference, titled "Hitting the Ground Running," netted some 250 attendees to talk about solutions and changes needed to counteract the trend.
Nan Boss, DVM, a program organizer and panelist, says the negative effects of rising student debt are influencing practices and practitioners at every level. It can mean the difference between hiring, training, production and even access to veterinary care.
New graduates are racking up debt, but it's subsidized by practice owners/employers. "Practice owners are also struggling to pay their associates enough money so they can pay off their student debt," Boss explains.
This year's session was set up with two panels — one featuring a group of practice owners and the other with associate veterinarians — addressing the challenges in practice. Veterinarians taking part in the panel discussion included: Boss, James F. Wilson, DVM, Priority Veterinary Consultants; Mark Russak, DVM, assistant clinical professor at Mississippi State University; Nancy Soares, VMD, owner of Macungie Animal Hospital, Macungie, Pa.; Emily Helms, DVM, associate veterinarian at Best Friends Veterinary Center, Grafton, Wis; Jonathan Gilvarry, DVM, partner at DeBary Animal Clinic in DeBary, Fla.; Joe Suarez, DVM, senior partner in DeBary Animal Clinic; David Adams-Castrillo, VMD, equine practice owner in New Hope, Pa.; Stephanie Roy, DVM, an associate at Bucks County Equine, LLC in New Hope, Pa.; Ryan Gorman, VMD, Animal Clinic of Millville, Millville, N.J.; Craig Mohaghegh, DVM, an associate veterinarian at Foothill Veterinary Hospital in Pasadena, Calif. Jeff Thoren, DVM, moderated the session. Other participants included Donna Harris, DVM, Michigan State University; Jimmy Mahan, Live Oak Bank, and Ian Widensky of Bank of America Practice Solutions.
Boss explains, "We want each side to be aware of what skills they might need when they take a job in a practice to help get the new graduate up and running faster."
So what are the challenges? One attendee said it best, "(The veterinary schools) are graduating good doctors, but not very good practitioners."
In fact, new graduates are not getting enough practical experience, some owners contend. New veterinarians can't take three hours to do a spay surgery, and they need to be able to communicate to pet owners the true costs of extended care. Yet, practice owners cannot expect to hire new graduates with the same skill-set of veteran DVMs. Owners need to mentor and coach younger veterinarians.
Wilson contends it takes time and persistence for both groups.
"You need to prepare to hire a new graduate. Most practice owners want the graduate to be fully productive, and they have to put in the time to get there. One of the problems I see is that in some cases the expectations of practice owners are out of alignment. And he or she needs to look at a whole progression of things to make that person productive as opposed to simply expecting it. There needs to be systems in place, and I think it is a big hurdle. Let's figure out how to get there."
Soares, an owner and 2002 veterinary graduate, says that new veterinarians need to approach their employment as a career, not a part-time job. They need to actively contribute and take initiative in building a successful business.
"When we opened the doors of my practice, my philosophy was that if a pet was ill or emergent, I would see that patient. I worked no less than 70 hours a week. I did that as effectively as I could while managing the practice. I had a wonderful support system at home. I would run out of the exam room, go home and kiss my kids, and then run back to see more patients. It was exhausting. Besides raising children, it is the hardest thing I have ever done. It comes with many rewards, but the sacrifices are tremendous. You lose a part of yourself as a practice owner initially, and you have to be willing to accept that."
When new veterinarians enter practice, they are building their competencies as doctors, educators and team leaders. Yet, one of the toughest issues cited by the new graduate panelists is simply gaining acceptance by clients.
According to Roy, an associate equine DVM, "I felt ready to go off and be a small animal vet. I did not feel I was ready to go and be alone in the field as an equine vet. It's not true of all clients, but equine clients love gray hair. They own very expensive horses." Because of it, Roy says, one of the greatest challenges facing new veterinarians is gaining client acceptance.
Russak agrees. "When I ask new graduates, the answer is always I need more experience. I need more confidence. And I also believe they need to have the financial discussion with clients on cost."
Veterinary medicine is definitely a team sport, Boss says. Therefore, understanding the differences faced by veterinarians at every stage of their career is important to overcoming all of the challenges.