Veterinary education enrollment worries

Population growth will signal new economic problems, some say
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Aug 01, 2011

NATIONAL REPORT — An influx of new DVMs to satisfy a perceived workforce shortage could pose serious long-term economic problems, veterinary officials say.

Enrollments are increasing at veterinary schools and three new veterinary programs are in development. Simultaneously, 51 percent of veterinarians are reporting a net drop in patient visits according to newly released data from the Bayer Veterinary Care Usage Study by the National Commission on Veterinary Economic Issues (NCVEI) and Brakke Consulting. Factor in accreditation of foreign veterinary schools, and some say it foreshadows a kind of economic train wreck.

"We don't need any more companion-animal veterinarians. I'm firmly convinced of that," says Karen Felsted, CPA, MS, DVM, CVPM, and executive director of NCVEI.

A recent committee statement from the American Association of Bovine Practitioners echoes the same concerns.

Other sectors of the profession may be different, but those sectors have smaller needs and may not need as much room to absorb the increasing number of students being enrolled at domestic and off-shore veterinary colleges, she says.

"If you look at some of the other fields, without a doubt, there are areas that needa veterinarian," says Felsted. "But I don't think it's that simple. You really have to look at the underlying reasons why there isn't a veterinarian there."

The profession needs to more closely examine why some areas are underserved by veterinarians, Felsted says. Some rural areas may not provide enough work to support a practice, clients may not want to pay reasonable fees for veterinary care, or veterinarians may not want to live there.

"Until we figure out those issues, just graduating more veterinarians isn't going to be the solution," she says.

On the companion-animal side, Felsted says the recession has been tough on practices. More new veterinarians in that market could lead to greater price competition, spreading clients over more practices so that DVMs won't be able to earn enough to pay back their student debt.

But more new graduates are coming and because of enrollment increases the number of new graduates will increase by roughly 300 over the next few years at U.S. veterinary colleges alone.

One side of the argument for increased enrollment is that some groups, like the Bureau of Labor Statistics, predict a need for more veterinarians in the future. Leaders in veterinary education say they're answering that call, preparing for a future need. But some have argued that the colleges are increasing enrollment to make up for revenue shortfalls and flooding an already saturated veterinary job market.

"Pre-recession, the schools weren't as short of money," Felsted says. "The recession has really killed the schools, and it's hurt veterinary practices, so now these issues are more critical."

Schools are expected to deliver a high-quality education for less. Add to that the growing difficulty new graduates have in finding jobs, and Felsted says she doesn't envy the challenges facing veterinary colleges.

Dr. Bennie Osburn, dean of the University of California-Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, understands both sides of the debate. "I know new graduates are not able to find jobs where they want to go. We will not need as many jobs as we needed in certain areas of the United States," Osburn says. "On the other hand, schools cannot turn the spigot on and off like that." Osburn is in his final days as one of the longest-serving deans in the nation and has played a role in several recent studies trying to get to the root of the veterinary workforce issue and how education must adapt to the future.

Dr. Sheila Allen, dean of the University of Georgia (UGA) College of Veterinary Medicine, says the problem is regional. "In our area, our students might not have multiple job offers, or the exact job they want and where they want, (but) our graduates have been able to find jobs," Allen says. "I recognize that in some places graduates are having a more difficult time."