Brace yourselves. Sometime this summer, coming to an area near you will be a brand spanking new, upgraded, deluxe, prestige edition of the epitome and culmination of the repository of accumulated wisdom from the science of veterinary medicine from the brand-name alma mater you fondly associate with your own immersion into our profession too many moons ago. Yes, the new graduate.
After two decades of imagining themselves healing zoo and circus animals, their parents eager to have them finally begin supporting themselves, these intrepid young veterinarians, diplomas in hand, will surge from the protected world of academia into the reality of our practice world.
In the last 10 years, the number of practicing veterinarians has grown by 48 percent, according to a study by the National Commission on Veterinary Economic Issues.
Are all of these new graduates? No, they are not. Far too many are colleagues who, after a lifetime of dedication, tried and failed to sell their practices and retire from pet disease to senior ease. The blessed event failed to materialize for too many reasons.
There would have been no retirement difficulty if the number of pets also had increased 48 percent, but the pet population literally has been decimated. In the last decade, it grew only about 10 percent, and the outlook for the next decade is no better. We have added practitioners at five times the rate we have added pets. (I make no apology for excluding cows and swine as pets.)
Where are the buyers?
Our first and foremost problem is a lack of practice buyers. Generation X, those who should be taking the reins of our profession, seem to have a profound dislike of entrepeneurship. They want to practice but most dislike management chores of any kind and do not want to tie themselves down, valuing freedom above all.
They seek liberal benefits and liberal vacations. After all, one cannot deny the benefits of skiing and surfing as ways to enrich your life experiences. Please do not think that I judge this to be bad. It's just inconvenient to those who have served and seek a restful end to a productive life.
Our new graduates want financial guarantees in our uncertain world. Who can blame them? While new graduate salaries are increasing about $2,000 per year, tuition debt has increased at triple that rate. They are burdened with debt, $100,000 to $200,000 in most cases, and practice growth nationwide has been retarded by the economy. Where is the funding for our new graduates to come from?
Too many practices have seen the number of client transactions per veterinarian drop from the usual 15 to 18 per day to a dozen or fewer. Many multi-doctor practices are not replacing those that are able to retire, and others are forced into non-renewal of associates' contracts.
More often, practices are just holding on to their valuable but excess associates in the hope that the economy will soon turn around, bringing in a mass of new clients. This lack of management skills will cause more practice bankruptcies than would be expected as good-hearted practice owners deplete their capital.
I have had dozens of owners call me pleading for a solution after depleting their own and their spouses' 401Ks. Too late for far too many.
In the last decade they undertook a major and expensive remodeling, and now they cannot meet their mortgage payments. They cannot afford any associates, and they have stopped referring patients to specialists, hoping to retain that income for themselves.
A time of change
Consider this excerpt from DVM Newsmagazine Editor Daniel R. Verdon's blog (dvm360.com).
"This profession is going through some fascinating changes. And many of the issues/problems surfaced officially during the recent DVM Newsmakers' Summit at CVC East in Baltimore.
For the first time, surveys show declining interest in practice ownership among associates. I know; it's not a new trend, but it is getting progressively worse. Just 43 percent of associates have interest in ownership. This statistic ranks as the lowest in the survey's history (beginning in the early 1990s).
Simultaneously, educational debt has been climbing at staggering rates. Dr. James F. Wilson, of Priority Veterinary Consultants in Yardley, Pa., reports that some veterinary graduates are taking on debts exceeding $200,000; some are even up to an eye-watering $400,000. The average for new veterinary grads is thought to be closing in on $1,400 a month over 10 years.
In a study by Dr. Allan Kelly et al., professor and dean emeritus of the University of Pennsylvania's veterinary school, something like 40 percent of veterinary graduates are pursuing advanced study.
Now, throw in the recession.
The DVM Newsmagazine survey shows a significant drop in those practices seeking to hire associate veterinarians in the next two years... The veterinary profession has been amazingly resilient — another testament to the power of the human-animal bond."
It will be interesting to see how those who go on for advanced study fare in an even more crowded market a few years from now.
However, seldom has our profession been battered on two fronts: increasing graduates and a declining economy.
To our new graduates, well-deserved congratulations. Tough times seldom last in our profession.
Somehow, those who persevere will get through them. Somehow those who have already persevered for 40 or 50 years will find a way to solve their re-defined retirement problems. Somehow.
Dr. Snyder publishes Veterinary Productivity, a newsletter for practice productivity. He can be reached at 112 Harmon Cove Towers Secaucus, NJ 07094; (800) 292-7995;
; fax: (866) 908-6986.