Wake up and smell the veterinary crisis

Wake up and smell the veterinary crisis

Let's stop blaming the economy and start focusing on the real issue at hand. There are just too many veterinarians on this earth.
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Aug 01, 2013

In spite of the efforts of our profession's leaders, many veterinarians seem unaware or at least unconcerned that our beloved profession is in crisis. While I wouldn't want to deprive anyone of following his or her dream of becoming a veterinarian, there are simply too many of us to meet the existing demand—a demand that is shrinking.

Some 15 years ago, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) and American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA), along with the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges (AAVMC), commissioned a study by KPMG, "The Current and Future Market for Veterinarians and Veterinary Medical Services in the United States." The study was actually prompted by Malcolm Getz's book, Veterinary Medicine in Economic Transition (Wiley, 1997), which predicted an impending oversupply of veterinarians.

Contrary to the impression of many people, the study's findings indicated that there wasn't a surplus of veterinarians. In fact, the emphasis of the report was on economic concerns, and indeed veterinary incomes were a major concern of the profession. The mantra for veterinarians became, "Raise your fees and charges!"

However, there was one important tidbit from the study that was more or less ignored by the profession. It was the section that read, "There is evidence that in purely economic terms there is an excess of veterinarians, which is a cause of downward price pressure and is projected to result in stagnant veterinary incomes over the next 10 years. More important, the characteristics of the supply may not closely match the demand."

The study predicted a probable balance between supply of veterinarians and demand for veterinarians by 2014. This was predicted based largely on the steady numbers of veterinarians being produced by 27 U.S. veterinary schools. Well that was then, and now a lot has changed.

The problem with veterinary schools

The number of U.S. veterinary colleges represented in the AAVMC has just increased to 29, and that number will likely continue to increase compounded by increasing class sizes in existing schools. Even more concerning is the number of AVMA-accredited international schools—there are currently 18 (five in Canada, one in Latin America, five in Europe, five in Australia and New Zealand and two in the West Indies). Since the "Mega Study" warned us of this delicate balance, the number of veterinarians graduating in the U.S. has increased by more than 500 a year. In 1980, there were 32,500 veterinarians; by 2007 that number had increased to nearly 64,000. Today there are some 90,000 active veterinarians in the United States. And there is no end in sight.

During the same period that our professional population was exploding, a number of other factors have impacted veterinary medicine as well. Some of these factors have been attributed to a decline in the economy, but many are societal and technologic changes. They are independent of the economy except in that the recession fed an emphasis on alternative delivery sources and even a reduction in the perceived value of products and services. Pet owners simply reduced their dependence on veterinarians.

So what's all that got to do with us? Well, just about everything! Our planet is facing crises of excess—too many people, too much neglect and not enough resources. And most people believe that we, along with our descendents, will pay the piper. Winds are changing and tides are rising. Regardless of the cause, these changes will impact us for generations. For what happens to one of us happens to all of us.

If one veterinarian is struggling, we're all struggling, and there's a real oversupply of veterinarians. The recently published AVMA 2013 Veterinary Workforce Report finds that out of the more than 90,000 active veterinarians, fewer than 79,000 consider themselves fully employed, indicating a 12.5 percent excess capacity of veterinary services. Put more bluntly, this means one in eight of our colleagues is underemployed!