That was one of the main findings outlined in a study released today by the American Veterinary Medical Association, which discovered that the available supply of veterinary services in 2012 exceeded demand by the equivalent of about 11,250 full-time veterinarians.
Put another way, 12.5 percent of U.S. veterinarians’ capacity to diagnose, treat and provide wellness care to patients went unused in 2012.
The excess capacity is projected to range from 11 to 14 percent annually through 2025, but AVMA cautioned that the issue isn’t one of too many people entering the profession.
"The study aptly points out that it’s not a matter of too many veterinarians but it’s a matter of a lot of veterinarians not running their clinical practices at full capacity,” said Michael Dicks, Ph.D., director of AVMA’s Veterinary Economics Division in Schaumburg, Ill. "The 12.5 percent underutilization of capacity in those practices [may speak] to the state of the economy.”
Generating additional demand for veterinary services is one obvious solution, said Link Welborn, DVM, Dipl. ABVP, chairman of AVMA’s Workforce Advisory Group.
"That’s not simple and quick and easy, but certainly an area that definitely needs to be focused on,” Dr. Welborn said.
The study determined that 53 percent of veterinarians surveyed were working at less than full capacity, compared with 38 percent whose practices were at full capacity.
Among veterinarians with appointments to fill, equine practitioners were estimated to have the highest excess capacity for veterinary services, at 23 percent. Veterinarians focused on small animals or food animals had excess capacity of 18 and 15 percent, respectively. Mixed-animal practitioners followed at 13 percent.
The reasons for the disparity will require further research to identify and learn from clinical practices "that are not only operating at high levels of capacity but also providing optimal veterinary care while using good business principles,” AVMA reported.
Part of the effort includes the launch of the Veterinary Workforce Simulation Model, an AVMA-owned software program designed to help veterinary leaders better understand supply and demand issues and veterinary economics.
Students considering a career as a veterinarian should not be discouraged by the news, agreed officials from AVMA and the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges.
"Unemployment in veterinary medicine is extremely low,” Welborn said. "Underemployment is our real problem.
"We don’t want to scare off the best and the brightest coming into our profession,” he added. "The reality is there are a lot of veterinarians that have very fulfilling careers, and veterinary medicine can be a stable source of income and provide a comfortable living for a lot of people.”
Deborah Kochevar, AAVMC’s president and dean of the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, said the study "documents some fundamental problems” and "begs the question: ‘How should our schools and colleges of veterinary medicine respond?’
"We believe that market forces are the ultimate determinants of capacity and demand in an economic system,” Dr. Kochevar said.
"We should remember those who possess veterinary medical degrees are uniquely equipped to tackle some of society’s most pressing problems,” she stated. "There is growing recognition that the academic rigor and comparative nature of a DVM degree, spanning multiple species, brings value and application across a broad spectrum of technical, scientific and medical careers, including homeland security, public health, disease detection and prevention, research, and protecting the safety of our nation’s food supply.
"We must continue to encourage, recruit and educate the best students,” she added. "And America’s love affair with the family pet is not over.”
The American Animal Hospital Association echoed some of the points made in the study but took a darker view of the growing veterinarian workforce, which AVMA pegged at 90,200 in 2012.
"Those in veterinary medicine need to stop and take a hard look at the causes of the current situation and reassess whether an increasing number of veterinarians in a market where supply far outpaces demand is in the best interests of students, the public and our profession,” said AAHA’s executive director and CEO Michael Cavanaugh. "With an estimated national supply of 100,400 veterinarians by 2025 and a projected national demand of only 88,100, we can expect very challenging times ahead if the profession does not start exploring solutions to this challenge.”
Dr. Cavanaugh, DVM, Dipl. ABVP, pointed out that the news "is likely to increase anxiety about the future.”
"No graduate who has poured their soul into learning this profession should be left without a job,” Cavanaugh said. "We know that veterinary medicine is a calling for many and a true profession of the heart. That said, young people considering veterinary education deserve to know exactly what they are getting into if they choose to go down this path.”
Both AVMA and AAHA recommended that veterinary practitioners embrace the Partners for Healthy Pets initiative to help close the gap between capacity and demand. The AVMA/AAHA program provides free resources designed to ensure regular veterinary visits, increase public awareness of a veterinarian’s role in pet health and welfare, and enhance a pet owner’s perceived value of preventive care.
"Ensuring that pets receive regular preventive care is not only good for the pet, but increases demand for other services as other conditions will be identified and diagnosed,” Cavanaugh said.
The needs and demands of patients and clients must always be met, said AVMA president Douglas Aspros, DVM.
"There are indications that we haven’t been meeting the needs of society as well as we probably should,” he said, "and that leaves us a lot of opportunity as a profession to work that out.”