It’s Time To Cure What Ails New Grads

Second of two parts

“Something’s got to give,” I wrote at the close of my last column on the trials that new veterinary graduates face. Given the conspiracy of conditions detailed there, a newly minted veterinarian’s nest-leaving step can feel like a perilous fall.

Here’s a recap:

Yes, the trials of the cold, cruel world come on fast and furiously when no internship or residency cushions the divide between it and the warm embrace of academia. More so when new grad debt load averages over $130K—an undeniably high load, especially when comparably few resources are made available to help us manage it.

The psychological isolation of the often solo-esque clinical environment that accompanies this scenario means high anxiety, especially when our hands-on skills are woefully at odds with our employers’ expectations, especially when we’re asked to learn on the job with a “mentor” who has no understanding that she or he has taken on a new job description along with a new hire.

Which is bad for us. Which is bad for our bosses. Which is undeniably bad for our patients. Which bodes ill for our long-term degree of job satisfaction. Which does little for any profession’s necessary cache of enthusiastic, dedicated souls who work hard to advance its goals.

Unhappy graduates can become cranky, disillusioned practitioners who will reliably morph into jaded old birds over time—that is, if they don’t switch careers and somehow manage to live long enough to earn a geriatric designation. Not a winning recipe for professional success on a grand scale, I think you’ll agree.

The Big Question

Q. So what’s a profession to do once it belatedly begins to realize it’s not taking adequate care of its own precious resources?
A. Move on it—fast!

That is what this second installment on the subject of new grads is all about: Creating conditions by which veterinarians can reasonably expect to improve their young colleagues’ lot. And not just because it’s best for our new grads, but because that’s what’s best for us all—no exceptions.

When the Colorado Veterinary Medical Association held its most recent Fall Leadership Conference, I got tapped to sit and discuss this sensitive subject with the group. The problems were enumerated, their depths were discussed, and in due course some solutions came to the fore.

As happens within the context of any cautious group, most of the answers came dressed in committee-sized outfits destined to fall into AVMA-appropriate subgroups. But the outcry was unanimous: Something needs to be done. Here are the areas we most need addressed:

No. 1: Debt management.
No. 2: Food animal practitioner shortages.
No. 3: Clinical competency.
No. 4: New graduate stress and satisfaction.

No Easy Answer

The solutions to these issues are complex and interrelated. And all, perhaps with the exception of No. 4, are being addressed at the highest levels of the AVMA and by the federal government. No secret there. But is it enough?

Sure, debt relief is on the table for food animal practitioners, anyway. This, we’re happy to hear, was progressing nicely as of press time. Further, every school I’ve observed professes to be making progress with respect to our clinical competency concerns, whether they’re altering entrance requirements on prereqs, revamping their tracking programs, building inner-city hospitals for expanded clinical opportunities, offering lengthier in-clinic options.

Problem is, most of it isn’t happening in time for most new graduates to enjoy—as is to be expected, perhaps, when we accept that all the solutions to what ails us are heavy-lifting, infrastructure-intensive projects better left to others to solve. And yes, most of the work that needs doing requires complex machinery, but by no means all of it.

Yes, there are other options. Instead of griping and grousing, hoping and wondering, veterinarians need to come around to the idea that No. 3 and No. 4 are well within our grasp, grassroots style.

Because while new grads’ clinical competency issues will ultimately require our schools’ concerted efforts, the role of employers and invested colleagues looms large with respect to the wider issues involved in integrating our new grads into practice. After all, when it comes to this transition, it’s no one group’s responsibility—not the schools’, not the AVMA’s, not the graduates’, not the practice owners’ or the larger community of concerned colleagues.’

To that end, peer-to-peer mentorship programs are indispensable and yet rarely standardized, even for practices hiring new graduates, year after year. Devising a system by which to address new graduate issues (including the most basic concepts of mentorship, clinical instruction checklists and delineating basic job satisfaction issues) would seem to be of high value.

Look to Australia

But in a land where internships for secondary and tertiary facilities aren’t even standardized, how can we expect general practices to conform to any sort of new grad-friendly system? I guess you’d have to ask the Australian Veterinary Association that question, because that’s what it does. It recognizes that its new grads’ first year out is critical to a lifetime of job satisfaction. Hence, the availability of “new-grad-friendly” accreditation for qualifying practices and a program built completely around the needs of new grads and their “mentor hospitals.”

Incredibly, to our American sensibilities, anyway, that includes one-on-one counseling for new grads (for stress, employment and, most critically, debt-related issues) and mentorship training for employers. Toll-free hotlines. A resource-rich website. Employment services. Quite a spread. But it’s not free, much though it may rely on the volunteer services of local veterinarians. It costs money to establish and requires some serious administrative ingenuity.

Despite the costs, our ad hoc group deemed this approach most promising based on its acceptance of the reality that graduates cannot be left on their own to sink or swim, not when sinking means a multifactorial loss to the profession.

Because it also takes into consideration the quality of the mentorship, respects the fact that clinical aspects may be lacking and creates a system whereby issues can be tracked and a channel through which they might be addressed, the Australian model, in principle anyway, would seem to offer the most comprehensive solution to all four points on our list of critical issues.

National or Local?

What better than to establish a new-grad-friendly body dedicated to the improvement of us all? How better than to address our profession’s most pressing problems through a centralized service that recruits individual practices and taps our own unique skills? 

AVMA? AAVMC? AAHA? (They’re in the accreditation business anyway, right?) Or do we keep it completely at the level of the local VMAs? How much to charge for accreditation? What do practices stand to gain from this model? What do others stand to lose? Would this replace private practice internships for some? Could accredited practices get away with paying less due to their mentoring? What other forms of financing would be needed for such a system?

OK, so we didn’t set out to solve the new-grad problems of our entire profession in one session. Nor do I promise to offer a comprehensive solution in one column. Indeed, it’s barely a tease. But maybe it’s enough for a start. 

P.S.: Thanks again, Colorado VMA. You rock! <HOME>

Patty Khuly, VMD, MBA, is a small-animal practitioner in Miami and a passionate blogger at Dolittler.com. She earned her veterinary degree in 1995 and her business degree from Wharton in 1997.

This article first appeared in the February 2010 issue of Veterinary Practice News

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