Three reasons veterinarians are not doomed

Want to fix what's wrong with veterinary medicine? First, remember what's right.
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May 07, 2013

I’m going to let you in on a little secret. There are a lot of very smart people out there who think veterinary medicine is in trouble.

I was speaking to a successful veterinarian a few months ago, and he decided to share with me all the reasons he thinks our profession is doomed. He touched on enormous educational debt, people bringing pets to the veterinarian less often and a potential scarcity of jobs in the coming years. He talked about the economy, difficulties facing small businesses today and the rising costs of healthcare for both people and pets.

He finished by pointing out that I, as a fairly young veterinarian, was going to be maximally affected by the rapid downward trajectory of the veterinary field. I think his exact words were, “You’re totally screwed.” How very helpful. I was so taken aback by this stream of negativity that at the time I could barely muster an articulate response. While I don’t think anyone has answers to all the issues he brought up, here’s what I wish I had said in reply: “My fellow veterinarians and veterinary technicians do have lots of challenges ahead. I don’t think anyone knows exactly how to navigate the changing world around us, but I have no interest in abandoning ship. If we want to save the veterinary profession, then the first thing we have to do is remember why it’s worth saving. I still love veterinary medicine, and this field has a lot going for it.”

Here’s what’s right.

The people

The people working at the front desks in veterinary clinics could do a very similar but easier and less stressful version of their job for a thousand other types of businesses. They could be in dental or human healthcare offices, maybe even making better money, but they’re here because they want to make a difference in the lives of pets.

Plus, few people out there work as hard as our technicians. And theirs is a dirty job. They get spattered with vomit, rejected cat medications, anal gland secretions and all other manner of bodily waste. They wear x-ray exposure meters to measure how much radiation they’re exposed to, they know how to assist in surgery, they understand the side effects of common medications, and they’re able to gently but firmly restrain pets while minimizing pain and fear.

They get called on to handle scared pets, emotional people and—perhaps most impressively—a variety of computer problems that are beyond the abilities of the doctors they work with. (Ahem. Present company included.) They take years’ worth of advanced education courses to become credentialed as veterinary technicians, and their salaries often don’t reflect their high level of training, immense skill or strong work ethic. They’re in it for more than money.

Furthermore, many of these angels are the driving forces behind local rescue and shelter programs. They’re the ones who adopt the “broken” pets no one else would take after life-altering injuries. They’re also the ones who get to apologize to pet owners when the veterinarian is running late, stuck in surgery or home with a sick child.

Do these people make mistakes or have bad days sometimes? Of course. They’re human. But the fact that they exist in the world should brighten all of our days.

The progress

We can’t fix every medical problem, and many of our treatment and diagnostic options are not cheap. But think about all we can do today that we couldn’t even 10 years ago. Blood analyzers give our patients what amounts to an internal physical examination in less than a minute. We take radiographs that we lighten, darken, zoom and reposition with the touch of a button. We copy those same radiographs onto a DVD or e-mail them to a veterinary radiologist on the other side of the country for a consult within the hour.

Also, the level of comfort we’re able to provide injured pets and pets recovering from surgery is on an entirely different level today from where it was a decade ago. Continuous rate infusions, multimodal pain control, epidurals for orthopedic pain—these were practically unheard of in the recent past. Now they’re increasingly common practices. The idea that pets don’t feel pain or don’t experience it in a way that justifies proper pain management is fading away, and we’re entering an enlightened new age.

Access to veterinary specialists with highly advanced medical equipment, skills and training is soaring. These specialists used to be found only in large universities with veterinary teaching programs. Now they’re in every major city.

What’s more, they’re readily available via telemedicine. We can send photos to dermatologists, videos to behaviorists, EKG recordings to cardiologists, ultrasound scans to radiologists and lab results to internal medicine specialists. This technology barely existed five years ago, and now it’s everywhere.

The purpose

When I was applying to veterinary school, my wife met the wife of a veterinarian in our area. My wife told her that I was applying and asked, “What advice do you think your husband would give Andy about going to vet school?” The lady smiled grimly and said, “Go to dental school.”

Life as a veterinarian or veterinary technician is not easy. It includes a work schedule that doesn’t end when the veterinary clinic is scheduled to close. It can mean stress and long days. Our emotions take daily bungee jumps as we handle everything from kittens to euthanasia. We second-guess ourselves, sometimes suffering baseless guilt and remorse for outcomes we can’t control. Our pay grade is below our human-focused counterparts. Still, it’s in our blood. Those of us who love it wouldn’t trade it for any other job.

Being a veterinarian is deeply rewarding. It’s a calling. There’s a reason most of us take out big loans to fund our education. This is a profession where you can lay hands on an animal and save both that pet and the spirit of its owner. While that reality can slip from view underneath piles of bills and paperwork from time to time, it’s still very real. It’s a life with purpose, and that’s wonderful.

So let’s explore options and run numbers. Let’s think and rethink how we do our work. And let’s keep our eyes on our purpose. If we do that, we’ll find a way to fix the problems that come up as veterinary medicine continues to evolve. I have faith in that.