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Rural veterinary shortage caused by retention issues, not attraction

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Jun 01, 2010

NATIONAL REPORT — Two companion studies that delve into the motivations to enter and leave rural veterinary practice could provide key insights for recruiters and veterinary colleges trying to sway incoming veterinarians into practicing in underserved areas.

The key points made by the studies are that most veterinarians who enter rural practice make up their mind to do so long before entering veterinary school. They are attracted more by the lifestyle of the rural veterinarian than the salary or other incentives. However, the lifestyle of the rural veterinarian often plays a part in many leaving rural practice as they mature.

The studies, "A survey of reasons of veterinarians enter rural veterinary practice in the United States" and "A survey of reasons of veterinarians leave rural veterinary practice in the United States," were published through a combined collaboration between veterinary college researchers in Oregon, Ohio, Michigan, Colorado and Iowa.

Why choose rural practice — and when?

More than 92 percent of 1,126 respondents in the first survey reported an interest in rural practice. Those uninterested in rural practice primarily consisted of women, members of generations X (born between 1964 and 1978) and Y (born after 1978), veterinary students and those with urban backgrounds.

Nearly 40 percent surveyed say they developed an interest in rural veterinary practice before eighth grade, about 28 percent while in high school, 17 percent during undergraduate studies and about 13 percent while in veterinary school.

More than half interested in rural practice say having relatives with a farm background played a big role, while less than half had rural veterinarians as mentors. Fewer veterinarians cited exposure to rural practice in veterinary college or through clubs as factors in choosing rural practice. About 23 percent of those DVMs surveyed said that the stories of James Herriot cultivated their interest in rural practice. Men more frequently cited family farming backgrounds as reasons for being interested in rural veterinary practice, while more women cited influence from the works of James Herriot. More Generation Xers cited James Herriot stories than any other generation, and generations X and Y showed less interest than Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) and those from the Silent Generation (born before 1946).

More men than women reported an interest in rural practice, but 45 percent of women chose their path before eighth grade and only about 19 percent in veterinary school, compared to about 34 percent and 9 percent of men, respectively.

Veterinarians who chose rural practice placed a high value on rural lifestyles, followed by herd-level animal care, as major factors in their decision. Men were more likely to express an interest in herd care. Salaries and benefits did not play into the equation, and the study notes that recruiters for rural practices perhaps should focus efforts on emphasizing personal and professional features of the job, like rural lifestyle and herd medicine. However, salary proved to be a growing factor in the decision making of younger generations, the study notes.

Middle-America states like North Dakota, South Dakota, Texas, Kansas, Nebraska, North Carolina, Virginia and Indiana have some of the greatest food-animal veterinarian shortages — with some 1,300 U.S. counties reporting no veterinary service for more than 25,000 food animals, according to data compiled by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA). Other states reporting less drastic shortages — counties with no veterinarians for 5,000 to 25,000 food animals — are located primarily in the Southeast and up the East Coast, according to the map.