Veterinary medicine needs to critically assess workforce needs, watchdogs say
NATIONAL REPORT — With veterinary practice caseloads falling, some watchdogs in the profession are sounding the alarm on increasing veterinary school enrollments.
At the same time, leaders in veterinary education say new opportunities for DVMs will emerge outside of practice and it's up to veterinarians to carve new paths for themselves.
"I truly fear that we're looking at graduating way more people than the profession is going to be able to employ. The worst of it is that the debt levels are rising so fast it's almost becoming a bad investment to spend between $140,00 for residents and $260,000 for a nonresident or private school DVM education to enter an absolutely flat job market," says James F. Wilson, DVM, JD, a veterinary consultant who serves on the VetPartners Career Development Committee, Veterinary Pet Insurance's (VPI) Veterinary Advisory Board, and as national adviser for the Veterinary Business Management Association (VBMA).The problem is there isn't enough hard data on what happens to students once they leave college with their DVM in hand, says Paul Pion, DVM, Dipl. ACVIM, co-founder of VIN. More students go through veterinary programs, but when they are done and can't find a job, they often have no one to look to for help. A shortage of veterinarians would increase the value of the profession, but smaller class size would increase veterinary student fees even more, Pion says.
"There's no one thing you can change here that will make it better," Pion says. "How do we increase the value of the degree these kids pay for and mortgage their future for?"
Loan forgiveness programs awarded to draw students into underserved areas are working, according Marguerite Pappaioanou, executive director of the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges (AAVMC), who says more students are entering veterinary school with an interest in shortage areas like rural or production medicine.
But there are problems on the other end that aren't being acknowledged, Pion counters. Students in Kansas told him recently that they had to return money they received through a loan repayment program because they couldn't find jobs in the "underserved" area they were needed to work in.
"We have to really look at what's happening overall, and we have to be really honest about what we're seeing and what are the drivers," Pion says.
(See related story, "There's no shortage of veterinarians in most areas of rural practice, AABP reports.") What the profession really needs is an overall plan that will increase the value of veterinary medicine and make it a viable choice for the next generation, Pion says.
"We're always reacting instead of planning," he says. "To me, it comes down to you have to lead from the top. We don't have to blame anybody but those who choose to be leaders, it behooves them to make the hard choices."
Hard choices are something many new veterinary graduates will have to face, with jobs being harder to find and student debt levels increasing.
"There are not many jobs out there," says Dr. Nan Boss, owner of Best Friends Veterinary Center in Grafton, Wis. "I think there's a lot of discouraged fourth- and fifth-year students."
While veterinary students used to have their first post-grad jobs lined up by early spring, Boss says many are still looking.
"It's very scary because these students have such overwhelming amounts of debt, and now they're not able to find jobs," she says. "It's all very regional. I think a lot of it's the economy, but it's also saturation in some markets."
Boss says there are plenty of students who want to practice in underserved areas like rural medicine, but find themselves so saddled with debt upon graduation, they choose to go into more lucrative fields like companion-animal medicine. But graduating veterinary school and working in a practice are two very different things to graduates, Boss says.