Is the Golden Age of Veterinary Medicine Over?

The challenges the veterinary community face going forward may present some new opportunities.

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The subject of “Golden Age” has come up before…

Back in 2001, American Animal Hospital Association (AHHA) Executive Director, Dr. John W. Albers believed the profession was entering "the golden age of veterinary medicine."

Many of the points Dr. Albers made in his speech to the AAHA meeting in 2001 remain opportunities today. For example, he stated that veterinarians are their own worst enemies by setting low fees for services. He then reminded the 2,400 people in attendance of the obvious opportunity our profession has to fill our role in the deepening affection people have for their pets.

Later, Dr. Dennis McCurnin wrote in a lengthy article in April 2010, that we were entering the “Golden Age” of veterinary medicine. 

Reading what he had to say then is still relevant today and well worth your time.  He tackles many issues like student debt to salary ratio, the effects of corporate practices on private practices and finding ways to achieve a balanced lifestyle. His overall advice to overcome these challenges is to increase efficiency in delivering quality services. Be sure to take note of his practical steps to becoming more efficient.  

Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine has compiled a brief description of four historical eras of our profession. In some ways each of those eras could compete for the title of “Golden Age.”  

This is a fun glimpse into the past titled “Bringing History to Life.”  Understanding our past is a valuable tool to help us imagine our future.

There are Challenges, to be Sure

There's a lot of talk these days about the state of our profession.  Reading news articles and discussion boards can easily raise a few serious doubts about the future of veterinary medicine, especially for new and recent graduates with huge debt loads.

Then there’s the evidence that pet visits to veterinarians are on the decline along with public perception of the profession. And a New York Times article, which exposed economic woes of the profession to the national stage, doesn’t help our public perception ratings. 

Although negative, these opinions point out in stark reality two of the greatest challenges we must face and overcome. It’s like the pet dog who’s rushed into your clinic with a huge ugly gash across the neck. In an instant we envision what it will look like in two weeks with proper care. We need to apply our imagination to what it will look like when we repair these disturbing trends and help them to heal.

In fact, if taken at face value, reading a lot of the studies and reports out there might lead us to conclude the “Golden Age of Veterinary Medicine” has come and gone.

In this special report from “The National Academic Press," the critical role colleges and universities must play in a thriving veterinary profession of the future is made clear. The point is made that increasing enrollments are putting pressure on colleges to maintain adequate clinical faculty, specialists and other support personnel.  

Looking Back At Where We Came From

First, lets take a look back in time: During the early 1970s, setting up a practice was quite simple as long as you had your DVM degree, a state license and some courage to step out.

The list of regulations was short indeed, so there was a great deal of freedom to focus on helping clients care for their animals. Loans for education were available at such low rates and the terms so long, it was advantageous to make the payments over the full course of the loans. Veterinarians enjoyed a very positive and admirable status in the minds of the general public (thanks to those who had come before us). The demand for veterinarians was greater than the supply. There were no Internet veterinary warehouses or corporate practices or “Dr. Google” to contend with. It was logical to consider the local vet as the expert. Many practices flourished by practicing good medicine, treating clients with respect and maintaining up-to-date diagnostic equipment.

Was that “The Golden Age of Veterinary Medicine?” Maybe not.

Perhaps the most encouraging emerging change is the growing appreciation for the human-animal bond. The value of animals to the wellbeing of people continues to gain recognition. For example, during the past few decades, canine companions have gained status from the backyard to the bedroom. Who on earth plays a more critical role in that relationship than veterinarians?   

The article cited above is a report on the 2015 recipient of the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) Bustad Award, Dr. Bess Pierce. She nailed a key component to the future success of veterinary medicine with this quote:

“We tend to look at the human-animal bond through the lens of our relationships with our pets, but it is so much more than that. This intricate connection between animals and people is the very foundation of veterinary medicine; we have the gift of not only helping animals but of also serving people through animals.”

Thanks to development of the “One Health Initiative,” veterinarians are gaining recognition across all medical fields for their knowledge and expertise. Health officials are looking to veterinarians more and more to unravel the connection between human health and animal health. You can learn more at this AVMA.org post that give you access to a wide range of information through numerous links to related resources.

Great Life and Great Practice

There seems to be growing evidence that veterinarians of today are placing a premium on the enjoyment of life. To a few that may still mean working 70-plus hours each week. But, many have realized the value of time spent with family and friends and having fun outside of work. Four of the “Top 10 Regrets of Veterinary Medicine” listed in a recent survey involved family matters. Regrets by the numbers:

No. 1: I wish I had more time for personal life and family.

No. 5: I picked the wrong job. The hours are too difficult with 3 kids and the on-call time is a killer.

No. 6: I wish I’d had more kids or had kids sooner.

No. 7: I have regrets about my spouse (or lack thereof): I would have pursued marriage and started a family earlier.

Go back and read the articles by Dr. Dennis McCurnin and Dr. John W. Albers for insights into how a great life and a great practice might coexist.

Finding the right balance and putting it all together is the challenge, of course.

In the year 2015, members of our profession have lots of tools that can help achieve a more balanced life. Here are a few examples:

  • Emergency clinics enable practice owners to be at home or at play without constant interruptions.
  • Well-trained technicians are there to perform many important tasks and relieve a lot of daily stress.
  • A variety of payment options like animal health insurance and specialized credit agencies take away the burden of policing clients’ financial accountabilities.
  • Clinical information is readily available on a laptop, tablet or smartphone.
  • Anesthesia and pain management have reached levels that offer the profession reason to practice with confidence and pride.
  • Many career opportunities outside clinical practice are available. All of these allow doctors to make meaningful contributions to the wellbeing of animals and people. And, there may be less stress and more time for “doing life.”   

If you woke up this morning and can say you are a veterinarian or veterinary student, count your blessings. You are part of an exceptional profession. You have unique opportunities to make meaningful contributions every day to enrich the lives of animals and fellow human beings. 

Even with all the challenges, there’s plenty of evidence that the ”Golden Age of Veterinary Medicine” begins now.  Define what that looks like for you, make it happen and enjoy the journey!

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