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Veterinarians wanted: Half-dead or alive

The glass isn’t half full or empty when it comes to veterinarians—it’s running dry

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If veterinary medicine were a patient of ours, many of us would be racing for the crash cart—its vital signs aren’t good. Applications to veterinary school have dropped worrisomely from the days of old (I’m Class of 1980), student debt is soaring, too many pet owners can’t afford our services, and far too many pet parents think optimal pet health comes in a bag of super-premium food, rather than via regular veterinary visits. Many experts even point to the fact the basic raw ingredient of companion animal practice—enough pets to meet demand of existing and new pet owners—will reach a crisis point in the near future.

Today, as a profession and as people who share our homes with pets for comfort or therapy, our ranches with horses for work or pleasure, or depend on animals for our livelihood or research, we face a looming crisis. Simply put, the glass isn’t half full or empty when it comes to veterinarians—it’s running dry.

Allow me to look back using my own career as an example of what I mean.

No regrets

Becoming a veterinarian was a childhood dream. When I got the coveted thick envelope from Washington State University College of Veterinary Medicine in 1976, I knew I’d beat the odds and would be able to finish the journey to become a veterinarian. It was a calling that started when I was a seven-year-old child on a farm/ranch in rural Southern Idaho. As I recall, there were about eight applicants for every opening at WSU-CVM for a limited number of students. I was only a junior in college, but got in.

When we graduated in Pullman, Wash., surrounded by classmates and their families and supporters, the mood was buoyant, as we were lifted up by our now colleagues, ranging from the dean and faculty, veteran veterinarians, recent graduates, those in the classes behind us, and pre-veterinary students hoping God or Lady Luck would shine upon them, too. I don’t recall a single negative comment from a veterinarian saying:

1) You’ve made a mistake. You should never have gone to veterinary school.

2)You should have been an MD or DDS, instead of a DVM.

3) If I had it to do all over again, I wouldn’t have been a veterinarian.

In fact, the opposite was true. Times were tough then, but recent graduates told us that while the work was hard and the money was tight, they absolutely loved veterinary medicine. Our classmates’ career choices included mixed animal, companion animal, equine, poultry (I remember being shocked at how much they made), military, meat inspectors, and research. One made a living being a veterinary medical illustrator, another became a DVM, JD. When we left school and started jobs, by and large we found colleagues ready to mentor us, encourage us, cover for us, offer us career paths, use jobs as stepping stones to other opportunities, let us buy in or set in motion a buyout.

I had just such a colleague/mentor/friend in Colorado State University graduate, Bill Strobel, DVM, who let me become a partner in Green Acres Pet Hospital in Twin Falls, Idaho, right out of veterinary school. It was the summer of 1980 and I learned more than I ever expected about parvo (that was the year of the parvo pandemic). Yet, he also taught me how to hone my surgery skills, read radiographs, “edutain” new puppy owners, handle the final grace with pet owners, inspire team members, get clients to say yes, manage time, and have fun. He also stressed balance between a personal and professional life.

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It was early in my career that I got to meet my veterinary school hero, Ross Clark, DVM, from Tulsa, Okla., who I only knew from the pages of Veterinary Economics magazine, but so admired from his knowledge of the sales, customer service, leadership, motivation, marketing, promotion, hospital design, and financial side of veterinary medicine. Dr. Clark helped me early in my career—as if I were his son—with advice, coaching, and encouragement that continues to this day.

Rich blessings

I’m unsure if I achieved the adage, “Luck is when preparation meets opportunity” or if God played favorites with me, but I was blessed by:

1) Becoming a partner right out of veterinary school. My eternal gratitude, Dr. Strobel.

2) Making enough money to pay my student loans, make house payments on a new home, and start funding 
my retirement.

3) Being able to take vacations, have days off, enjoy hobbies, and farm (I know it’s a shocker to some, but 
I farmed for the first 10 years of practice)

4) Owning or co-owning six veterinary practices, mentoring dozens of veterinarians who went on to open their own practices back home or in other states, buy practices, and move on to industry or corporate veterinary medicine.

5) Writing for veterinary magazines and lecturing for more than 30 years, authoring 25 books that have sold more than eight million copies, doing network TV for over two decades, writing a syndicated vet/pet column for over 15 years, visiting 87 countries on seven continents, being married to the love of my life, Teresa, for over 40 years… I could go on and on.

These rich blessings underscore and inform what I’ve always said: veterinary medicine is the greatest profession on earth. I’ve echoed the beliefs and words of literally thousands of successful veterinarians who realized veterinary medicine didn’t have to be a purely altruistic profession, and you didn’t have to take a vow of poverty to be a DVM. I, and the vast majority of my classmates, have been financially successful and emotionally wealthy.

Personally, I’ve always encouraged people to become veterinarians and have helped dozens to get into veterinary school. To even think of discouraging a pre-veterinary student from pursing this noble career, or telling a current veterinary student they’ve made a mistake and are not going to enjoy practice and furthermore are going to struggle to make a living, is reprehensible. Taking it further, what about discouraging all those kids from becoming a veterinarian after they’ve watched us work our magic, helped out, and loved a pet. I’ve witnessed this dozens of times and heard these tragic conversations from the trenches hundreds of times. How many of us are taking advantage of local career days to talk up the greatest profession on earth?

I’ve been traveling around the U.S. speaking at veterinary schools about Fear Free, and when I give a positive message about veterinary medicine (their career choice) and their life-path (the ability to be financially successful and emotionally wealthy), it’s like I’ve pulled a nagging tooth, lanced an abse$$ (not a typo), or given them an IV “high five.” The drum beat of negativity is replaced by the realities of hope and the ability to thrive, not just survive, in the greatest profession on earth.

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I reached out via text to Ricky Walther—the 2019 national president of the Veterinary Business Management Association (VBMA) (with 5,562 current members) who’s in the UC Davis Class of 2020—about “stinkin’ thinkin’” that he’d been exposed to. He responded, “I’ve had a few veterinarians tell me not to pursue this profession. They told me it was a very emotionally draining profession and that it was hard to make enough money to pay back student loans. They said they love animals, but probably should have gone into a different career for work-life balance and for financial reasons. It places a large amount of stress on students especially now that we are close to graduating.” But there was hope, too, he added, “Everyone knows they need to keep their debt as low as possible, is aware of their debt load, and thinks that loan repayment plans and the benefits of practice ownership learned through the VBMA has helped reduce stress.”

WSU-CVM dean Bryan Slinker, DVM, PhD, built upon that sentiment when he responded via email, “Although there are issues with student educational debt and stress among others that we must tackle head-on as schools and as a profession more broadly, it is all too easy to shroud an open discussion of how to address these in very negative terms. We therefore are concerned potential applicants hear too many negative voices, which works against building the applicant pool and providing us the opportunity to select from a broader cross-section to bring the next generations into this marvelous profession.”

As veterinarians, we know we can’t just examine a pet and diagnose internal problems. We need diagnostic tests. So here are some facts for you:

1) In 1980, there were 7,014 veterinary students enrolled; divide by four and you get about 1,754 seats for 7,286 applicants. In 2017 the total number of students enrolled was 13,019; divide by four and you get about 3,255 seats for 7,076 applicants.

2) Put another way, there was about a 4.2:1 ratio of applicants to seats in 1980 versus 2.2:1 in 2017 (37 years later).

3) There were 7,286 applicants in 1980 versus 7,076 applicants nearly four decades later.

What’s needed?

I’m doing all I can to sound the clarion call without unnecessary hyperbole. We need both more graduating veterinarians and veterinary school applicants.

The good news is that the quality of applicants to veterinary schools is still high. Far from scraping the bottom of the proverbial barrel, we’re still taking cream off the top. But anytime you have a limited number of applicants, there are serious areas for concern and action.

I asked Dean Slinker (my classmate, for full disclosure) for his take on this. “We continue to see strong numbers of applications and we are admitting the quality of student we desire, but we noticed for the first time last year that we went to the bottom of the wait list in our general nonresident pool of applicants. We don’t know if this is a trend, but we have our eye on this because it may indicate growing competition, both nationally among the 30 U.S. colleges (with more in the planning stages) and internationally, to admit nonresidents out of a pool that is growing more slowly than demand. I think we could all agree a deeper pool would be healthier as the number of seats available grows.”

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Veterinary unemployment is under one percent. I’ve spoken with hundreds of veterinary practices that can’t find a veterinarian to hire.

Here are the six steps we need to turn things around and benefit all stakeholders:

1) Plant seeds. Put that stethoscope in that little boy’s or girl’s ear and let them know they should consider becoming a veterinarian. Go to career days at the local schools and be more passionate than anyone else there. When someone finds out you’re a veterinarian and says, “I always wanted to be a veterinarian,” rather than making invisible eye rolls, say, “It’s never too late to make that dream a reality.” Make converts!

2) Build up, rather than tear down. Cheer on pre-veterinary students and tell current students they’re going to love joining this noble, interesting, and revered profession. Tell them people are going to love them as DVMs. But we don’t have to sugarcoat things. As Dean Slinker said, “The opportunities in this profession are very clear. We need to portray those systematically, but without sugarcoating the very real concerns, in ways that potential applicants see this profession as a place where it is quite possible for them to achieve success and satisfaction.”

3) Increase value so you can increase wages. The public wants the veterinary profession to look at both the physical 
and emotional well-being of animals. The public also is willing to pay more for services if we do both. I’ve promised Ricky I’ll get him a $5,000/year higher job offer if he graduates from veterinary school Fear Free-certified. (Fear Free certification is complimentary to all veterinary and veterinary nursing students, all veterinary school faculty, residents, and employees; it also is free to all shelters when that program is completed in 2019.) I’m not going to pay Ricky out of my pocket; I don’t have to. There were hundreds of instances in the Class of 2018 where graduates received $1,000 to $5,000 higher job offers if they were Fear Free-certified. Practices wanted to bring the high-touch skill set into the practice (while still valuing a high-tech skill set) and were willing to pay. According to an American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) report, each $1,000 higher starting salary is equivalent to a $25,000 reduction in debt over a career (I know, one of those Freakonomics deals). Boom, this blows up Ricky’s debt problem.

What I’m doing to help

I’m willing to act as a go-between for the Class of 2020 where we see the value of a veterinarian differently (see how I tied in 2020 with hindsight?). I pledge to set up a way to connect veterinary graduates who have completed all complimentary Fear Free courses with veterinary practices willing to pay them $5,000 more. Furthermore, we’ll follow these newest colleagues during their first year of practice. I’m willing to put my money where my mouth is. I want to be part of the solution of growing the greatest profession on earth.

Marty Becker, DVM, writes every other month for Veterinary Practice News. He is a Sandpoint, Idaho, practitioner and founder of the Fear Free initiative. For more information about Fear Free or to register for certification, go to fearfreepets.com. Columnists’ opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Veterinary Practice News.

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