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VIEWPOINT: Is Veterinary Medicine Doomed?

Posted: August 4, 2009


Our profession has had its ups and downs over the years. We have seen periods of perceived shortages and excesses of practicing veterinarians. We have struggled through economic downturns. We have moved from a profession of mostly male large-animal practitioners to one of mostly female companion animal practitioners.

The human-animal bond has been better understood and developed so that our pets have moved from the barn in the 1950s to our bed by the 1990s.

Today, we have some 80,000 veterinarians in the U.S. and about 60 percent of them in companion animal practice. About 5 percent of the companion animal practices are corporate and 95 percent are private. The average size of private practices is about two veterinarians, according to the American Veterinary Medical Assn.

Quality of life has become an important issue for practitioners. In the past, many owners and associates worked 50 or more hours a week in addition to being on emergency call. Today, new graduates want to work 40 hours a week or less and no emergency duty.

Many would like Saturday off plus one or more three-day weekends a month. To some people, the value of a private life has become more important than income. 

Studies from the AVMA and the American Animal Hospital Assn. have indicated that the more hours worked, the more money made.

Today, there seems to be a disconnect between living a good lifestyle and repaying debt. 

I believe there will always be a place for private practice and that it will continue as the dominate form of business in the foreseeable future.

The mean educational debt in 2008 was $119,803, as reported by the AVMA. The mean starting salary for small-animal exclusive practice in 2008 was $64,744 (JAVMA, Oct. 1, 2008). The ratio of debt to starting salary is near 2-to-1. Salaries, however, are lagging behind the increases in educational debt.

Another factor in the growing debt issue is the difference between today’s graduates and those of 20 to 30 years ago. Newer graduates may not be as interested in ownership because of the increased hours usually required of owners. 

This seems to cross the gender line, as both males and females seem to share this feeling. Veterinary schools are about 80 percent female in current classes. The gender shift and generational differences seem to make today’s graduate more likely to seek work that has controlled hours, nights and weekends off, and mentoring and benefit programs. These perquisites are often not provided in smaller private practices.

In the past 10 years, specialty practices have entered the picture. This requires new graduates to continue their training for three to four more years (internships and residency) but allows the potential of a higher income on completion. 

The additional training, however, may increase the debt load, or at best, delay repayment of student loans.

Specialists have many opportunities for employment, including academia, industry, specialty practice and corporate practice. Often, qualified specialists must choose employment based on the income because of the large debt obligation. This choice often does not allow the newly trained specialist to be employed by teaching institutions because of the lower salary when compared to private practice and industry. 

Therefore, many teaching hospitals are finding it difficult to hire specialists. This has sparked concern over who will teach the new generation of veterinary students and specialists.

Since the larger corporate practices were introduced about 15 years ago, the opportunity to have a controlled work week, minimum management duties, retirement plan and benefits has changed the employment picture for both new graduates and specialists. 

Practices with one or two veterinarians often do not provide the schedule flexibility and benefits provided by larger private and corporate practices.

The question that comes up frequently deals with the future of private and corporate practices. How will pet insurance affect the level of patient care? Will corporate practice eventually replace private practice as we know it today? Who will buy all the one- and two-person practices when the owners want to retire? Will a balance exist between corporate and private practice?

Will we then have become dinosaurs that roam the earth and die off? I do not believe this will happen, but our profession is changing and individual veterinarians must change as well.

Practices must become more efficient and produce more revenue per hour to allow us to hire new graduates. Efficiency must include multitasking, operating two to three examination rooms simultaneously, delegating to highly qualified staff, using improved communication skills and managing our practices as a professional business.

I believe there will always be a place for private practice and that it will continue as the dominate form of business in the foreseeable future. 

However, one-person practices will decrease and three-, four- and five-person practices will increase. Some small practices will be lost and others will become consolidated. 

Both private and corporate practices are here to stay, and the quality of our services will only increase as we mature. If the profession can continue to become more efficient, we will transform ourselves from dinosaurs to eagles. The form in which we do business (private versus corporate) will continue to evolve, but private practice will become stronger only as we adopt more efficiency into the day-to-day operations. 


Dennis M. McCurnin, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVS, is chairman of the hospital executive committee, director of continuing education and a professor of surgery and management in the department of veterinary clinical sciences at Louisiana State University’s School of Veterinary Medicine. He also is an editorial adviser to Veterinary Practice News.

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