We All Have Stake In Next Generation

Understanding the extremes of debt we know new grads will encounter is crucial to the future of veterinary medicine.

First of Two Parts

Hi. My name is Patty and I’m in debt.

As you may know from previous columns, I’m up to my ears in it. And that’s OK. In fact, it’s exactly as I expected it would be when I accepted an out-of-state seat in the University of Pennsylvania’s Class of 1995.

At the time, students like me were riding the first wave of veterinary medicine’s new world order for graduates. The profession was just beginning to realize what being a new graduate in veterinary medicine could mean: over $100,000 in debt and a starting salary incapable of allowing graduates so besieged to meet their debt payment schedules. 

No whining here. Just the facts. And as you may know, it’s gotten way worse since then.

That’s why understanding the extremes of debt we know new grads will encounter is crucial to the future of veterinary medicine. Mark my words: Helping new graduates deal with the financial pain they face will be fundamental to creating a healthy and sustainable profession as we move into uncharted territory on the debt front.

Because it’s not just about the young ’uns. Indeed, no matter where you dine in the veterinary food chain, debt will affect your digestion.

What’s worse, debt is but one of the emerging issues new graduates will confront in uncomfortable ways past generations managed to skirt. Debt may be the elephant in the room, as we like to say, but that doesn’t mean the rhinos and hippos aren’t standing in the wings awaiting their turn, none too patiently.

Who are we educating? How can we train, side-by-side, a multidisciplinary generation of research scientists, veterinary specialists and industry leaders along with those who demand more immediate clinical training if they’re to effectively compete for companion and food animal positions—and actually know what they’re doing?

How do we supply confident, clinically competent clinicians when veterinary science has arguably moved beyond the crammable-into-four-years category; when it’s clearly no longer a one-size-fits-all curriculum. At least it isn’t if we’re to meet the needs of …

New Graduates …

• Who must move into the work force immediately if they’re to begin to feed Freddie Mac’s gaping maw.

• Who must be extensively and expensively mentored once they graduate. In part this is because they’ve spent the last year in clinics watching three-hour-long hip replacements that they’ll never do and paying for the privilege of losing sleep while playing nurse to spoiled thoroughbreds that they’ll never treat when they might have been passing tomcat catheters and appreciating the finer points of high-speed drill usage instead.

• Who experience harrowing trials by fire as they white-knuckle that first midnight bloat solo, something they have no business doing.

• Who need desperately to learn how to subsist now that their pizza isn’t being paid for by Pfizer anymore and their pets’ food is no longer comped by Hill’s.

Companion Animal Practice Owners …

• Who, jaded by circumstances and tired of taking on increasingly less competent but more book-smart new grads, try to figure out how to afford this new generation of high-priced graduates and somehow manage to avoid losing them to pregnancy within the next year or two. 

• Who don’t necessarily have the know-how, bandwidth or resources needed to appropriately mentor a new graduate.

Food Animal Practitioners …

• Who are fed up with looking for a willing, competent soul to take on solo detail so they can finally take that Caribbean cruise their spouses have been clamoring for since 1989.

• Who are wondering what the future of the profession holds—never mind food safety and biosecurity—once cheaper, less well-regulated paraprofessionals take on every clinical detail veterinarians once undertook. 

• How about corporate medicine, the feminine effect and a diminished taste for rural living? How do these play into the mix?

No One Is Immune

Like it or not, whether we’re looking to hire, considering an exit, jumping back into the mix after taking time off, getting back into school mode, making a career change or just plugging along, these issues affect us all.

But it’s not just about how much our new graduates will cost us all in the long run (and their expenses will trickle down, for sure). It’s also because veterinarians don’t just quit when things don’t quite work out––rather, we expire. In case you’ve never seen it happen, burnout isn’t pretty.

While every veterinary generation can lay claim to some degree of special needs or cultural shift that made for tough times and a rocky road, every veterinarian I know would doubtless fess up to wishing the path hadn’t been so tortuous. It’s not good enough to expect our new graduates to suffer just because our own generations survived.

Similarly, no practice owner should marvel at the shocking lack of practical knowledge displayed by their new hires. Nor should they be expected to spend $65,000 a year just to shoulder basic training detail.

Something’s got to give. That we all know. And that something will have to happen soon. Stay tuned for next month’s column as I detail the opportunities for action and what exactly it is that we risk if we don’t forge ahead. 

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 January 2010 issue of Veterinary Practice News.

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