Washington-The government might start paying off veterinary student loans to entice new graduates to work in underserved areas.
The National Veterinary Medical Services Act (NVMSA), which passed both the House of Representatives and Senate, awaits the signature of President Bush. If passed, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has the green light to develop a veterinary student loan repayment program for the "provision of veterinary services in shortage situations." The program is intended to help fill shortages of veterinarians in food animal agriculture and inner cities.
If Bush signs it, a separate appropriations bill would follow to spell out the details and dollar amounts of the legislation.
Dr. John Thompson, dean of Mississippi State University's veterinary college, was considered instrumental in getting the bill introduced through Rep. Charles W. Pickering, of Mississippi.
How did it all come about?
"The price of education has escalated so much that students are looking to reduce that amount as quickly as possible after graduation. It usually makes urban areas much more attractive," Thompson explains.
He thought that giving an incentive to get back to rural areas would help the veterinarian shortfall.
About five years ago, Thompson broached the subject with Pickering. The Congressman was sold, and introduced legislation, which slowly gathered enough support to see its way through Congress.
"The strength of our profession has been built off a foundation of service to the agricultural community and food safety for our country. I personally think it is critical that we keep the best qualified individuals in these areas."
The reality is that fewer and fewer students are choosing food animal and equine as career options.
Thompson explains, "We have more and more people gravitating nationwide to urban settings. We have fewer and fewer people in rural areas that are supplying our food supply."
Thompson adds that the incentive envisioned by legislation sponsors is not small either. He hopes the appropriations bill will allow up to three years of debt forgiveness.
The fine print
NVMSA allows for veterinary school educational loan repayment assistance (for tuition and educational and living expenses) to veterinarians who agree to practice in veterinary shortage situations.
The legislation authorizes the Secretary of Agriculture to enter into agreements (60-day maximum working days during a one-year period) with veterinarians to provide services to the federal government in emergency situations. The incentive for this service includes loan repayments and a salary for such service.
The legislation lets USDA consider debt forgiveness programs for areas vital to the country like public health, epidemiology and food safety.
Dr. Pat Halbur, associate professor at Iowa State University's veterinary school, says the state provided additional ammunition to Congress documenting the need for this legislation through its 2003 Iowa Food Animal Veterinarian Needs Assessment Survey sponsored by the Iowa Veterinary Medical Association and Iowa State University's Department of Veterinary Diagnostic and Production Animal Medicine. The survey results and letters of support were submitted prior to passage of the bill.
Documenting the need
Overall, the Iowa study is thought to be the most comprehensive of its kind looking at food animal veterinary medicine.
Here are some data to shed light on the extent of the problem.
Of the 96 graduates of ISU's 2003 class, only 13 new veterinarians entered veterinary practice in the state. Only three of the 96 graduates entered exclusive food animal practice. Of the 13 veterinarians who stayed in Iowa, only four entered food animal practice (including mixed). Overall, 25 of the 96 ISU graduates entered mixed practice.
Halbur explains that the shortage of food animal veterinarians is a very real phenomenon.
In Iowa, 81 percent of veterinarians feel they will have difficulty in hiring someone to do food animal medicine. The top reason, Halbur says, is the decreased supply of new graduates with a food animal interest.
The survey also sheds light on why this trend is occurring. Lack of interest in food animal medicine was the major reason veterinarians do not pursue food animal practice. Trends also include a changing gender balance at veterinary schools and the fact that fewer people in the U.S. population have agricultural roots.
On the other hand, food animal medicine has traditionally been dominated by men. The majority of new graduates are now women, and they are choosing small animal medicine.
Many food animal practitioners believed that the physical demands and the late calls in working with agricultural animals were a driving force behind the declining numbers of large animal veterinarians. Not so, says the Iowa survey. It's a lack of interest. (See Table 1.)
"It was not the physical demands of the job, which many people think of as a problem for new graduates," he says.
Of the food animal veterinarians participating in the survey, the biggest disadvantage to food animal practice is "the unstable farm economy, cited by 44 percent of the respondents. (See Table 2.)
Halbur adds that the study also offers some suggestions on ways to alleviate the problem including:
· Debt relief legislation
· Early and local recruitment of students with an interest in food animal medicine.
· Influence the public perception of food animal veterinary practitioners by emphasizing: good income, satisfaction with communities they live in, addressing the emerging need, importance of the role in animal health, national security, food production and food safety/public health.
The survey also estimates that the state will need at least 120 new food animal veterinarians in Iowa in the next five years.
The survey cost the association and school $17,500 to conduct. Ultimately, 360 veterinarians participated in the study and were interviewed, achieving an overall response rate of 80.9 percent and an excessively high cooperation rate, Halbur says. "Veterinarians like to talk about this issue."