Goldilocks and the Veterinary Profession

CVC panel tackles issue of student debt and jobs.

From left, Drs. Tony Bartels, Alice Villalobos and Paul Pion together in Washington, D.C.

Dr. Alice Villalobos

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Originally published in the June 2015 issue of Veterinary Practice News

Do you recall “The Story of the Three Bears”?

In it, Goldilocks tested the bears’ bowls of porridge; one was too hot, one too cold and one just right. This is much like the state of veterinary practice today as we debate whether we have too many, too few or just the right number of veterinarians.

I facilitated a panel discussion on concerns about the future of our profession during the CVC East convention in Washington, D.C. in April.

The event was supported by The VIN Foundation with the Society for Veterinary Medical Ethics (www.svme.org). Participating in the  day-long program were Dr. Dennis McCurnin; Mark Cushing, J.D., of Animal Advocacy Group; Dr. Paul Pion, co-founder of Veterinary Information Network (VIN); and Dr. Tony Bartels, MBA, who  with his veterinarian wife have about $450,000.00 of student debt.

Dr. McCurnin began by describing how our profession crept into its situation with statistics that show veterinary medical education is in a potential bubble. He pointed out that two new veterinary schools are operational this year and two more are planned in the near future, and noted that more foreign schools are being accredited by the American Veterinary Medical Association’s Council on Education (COE).

Dr. McCurnin is concerned that we are creating a veterinary oversupply by graduating more veterinarians into a saturated job market. They are saddled with growing student debt loads, ranging from $160,000 to $450,000, which funded their eight-years-plus of college.

The debt ratio for graduates is calculated upon their total student debt over their first year’s wages. For example, if the student owes $150,000 and makes $100,000 in the first year, the debt ratio is 1.5. The current debt ratio for all veterinary students is 2.4, the highest debt ratio of all the health-care professions, and it is increasing yearly.

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What ethical questions can we ask ourselves about Goldilock’s veterinary porridge? Does this model serve the rising number of veterinary students, interns and residents who will be entering the job market in the next 20-25 years?

Dr. McCurnin noted that the recovery from the 2008 recession remains slow and has created a 13 percent drop in annual visits to private practices. He asked if the job market is saturated and if there will be enough public demand for veterinary services to fully employ new graduates.

This problem already exists for law school graduates, where less than 50 percent find employment in the legal profession.

Attorney Mark Cushing’s presentation dealt with the predicted expansion of the U.S. population growth over the next 25 years. He said leadership in the veterinary profession needs to innovate and create inroads that will result in future demand within the 50 percent of the pet-owning population that do not use veterinarians or their services for their animals.

Mr. Cushing pointed out that many animals in society, especially in rural areas such as Appalachia–which is near Lincoln Memorial Veterinary School in Tennessee, one of the new veterinary schools–are underserved by veterinarians and could use up to 700 more.

Dr. Pion eloquently summarized the polarized viewpoints presented and noted that Dr. Michael Dicks, an AVMA economist, has stated that veterinary school does not have a good return on investment when compared to earnings if one is employed directly after four years of college.

Dr. Pion agrees with Mr. Cushing that the veterinary profession is racing to reach status quo and that decision makers need to listen to all aspects of the problem and become more innovative. He said there is a great need to pull diverse viewpoints together for strategic planning to offset fallout and to increase veterinary demand.

The panel discussion was sparked by comments from some veterinarians who felt strongly that the AVMA COE should be independent of the AVMA.

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Dr. Pion’s talk, “Every veterinarian Needs to Understand Student Debt,” pointed out we are leaving too many issues for future DVMs and kicking the can down the road threatens career satisfaction and viability of the profession. He introduced VIN’s Student Repayment Estimator, which can calculate a graduate’s specific pathway to debt re-payment when data is fed into the app.

Dr. Bartels’ talk, “Climbing and Surviving Mount Student Debt,” was illuminating to all attendees including students and recent graduates with student debt. He provided figures of today’s student debt loads, which have increased 24 percent since 2010 without a  similar increase in salaries.

He said student debt is actually much higher than published data, which often averages in the 10 percent of debt-free students with those that have debt and may not include students from offshore schools.

He introduced the term “traumatic statement syndrome” (TSS) and pointed out pitfalls, loan parasites, errors and the benefits of using the income-based repayment (IBR) versus pay as you earn (PAYE) plans, which the graduate must re-certify annually.

He explained the loan forgiveness program, which allows students to pay off their loan for its tax value and will truly be an amazing bargain 20 years from now. But he said, “It can freak some people out if they don’t understand it and prepare for it.”

At the end of each session, attendees asked questions that sparked some debate and audience interest and interchange.

Members of the panel plan to generate a white paper and to present this program at the CVC this summer and at CVC West in San Diego. The goal is to educate students and recent graduates who have college debt with the information and understanding they need to modify, streamline and handle their student loans properly to succeed in their future livelihood to enjoy our profession’s porridge.  

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