Private university in Arizona plans new veterinary school

Midwestern University cites shortage of rural practitioners

Published: March 08, 2012
By Jennifer Fiala

Photo courtesy of Midwestern University
Midwestern University, a private institution with campuses in Illinois and Arizona, plans to open a veterinary school on its Glendale, Ariz., campus in 2014.
Residents in Arizona seeking to become veterinarians soon will have an in-state option for earning their DVM degrees.

Midwestern University’s Board of Trustees voted Wednesday to move forward with plans to create a veterinary medical college with an inaugural class of 100 students to be admitted in fall 2014.

"This is fantastic news for both Midwestern University and the state of Arizona,” said Gov. Janice K. Brewer in a statement released by the university. “The establishment of this college will produce good jobs and help ensure that Arizona develops homegrown veterinarians to meet our most pressing animal health care needs.” 

The four-year program will be developed on Midwestern’s Glendale campus, about a 15-minute drive from downtown Phoenix. Tuition has not been set but likely will be similar to that of other veterinary medical programs, university officials said.

Median tuitions for U.S. veterinary medical programs was $18,316 for in-state students and $38,788 for out-of-state students during the 2010-11 academic year.

It's unclear whether the Midwestern program will include a veterinary teaching hospital, which can cost tens of millions of dollars to build. All but one of the 28 veterinary medical programs in the United States have a teaching hospital, which until recently was necessary for accreditation.

Western University of Health Sciences in Pomona, Calif., has the only accredited veterinary medical program in the United States that’s successfully bypassed the teaching hospital condition.

Rather than having its students rotating through an on-campus hospital, Western U has adopted a “distributive model,” which involves a partnership between the university and 300 or so private practices. It’s in those private practices that third- and four-year students are expected to learn their clinical competencies.

Another way that fledgling programs can avoid building a teaching hospital is by entering into a 2+2 arrangement with a university that has an established veterinary medical program.

One such arrangement involves Utah State University, which recently accepted 20 students to attend its new veterinary medical program this fall. The inaugural class will complete two years of course work at Utah State before moving to Washington State University for clinical training.

In Utah and Arizona, proponents of creating in-state programs cited a desire to address shortages of veterinarians in rural areas, especially those who treat livestock.

Midwestern University President and CEO Kathleen Goeppinger could not be reached today for comment but stated in a news release that developing a veterinary college is in line with the university’s mission to meet area health care needs.

Established in Illinois, Midwestern is the state's largest not-for-profit health care university. The institution, with campuses in Illinois and Arizona, offers medical, dental, pharmacy, optometry and nine health sciences degrees.

“The rural and agricultural areas of our state have shown a significant demand for more well-qualified veterinarians and have voiced strong support for this new college,” Goeppinger said of Arizona in the news release.

In the days surrounding Midwestern's announcement, Arizona farmers and ranchers have taken their plight to the media, explaining to local newspapers and broadcasters that veterinarians are in short supply in their areas. 

The Midwester
n program, however, cannot guarantee that its veterinary students will practice food-animal medicine or settle in underserved areas of the state. The vast majority of all veterinary graduates in the United States enter small-animal practice, usually in urban areas.

It's a fact that Goeppinger acknowledged almost a year ago, in an interview with the VIN News Service. “We have to train for all kinds of veterinary medicine, but we can do a number of things. (For example), we can recruit students from rural areas who want to go back home," she said.  

What attracts students to small-animal medicine rather than large-animal practice is varied and multifaceted. Many believe that treating pets often comes with better working conditions and a bigger paycheck, especially in metropolitan areas. Given that new veterinarians graduate, on average, with more than $142,000 in student loan debt, earning a sizable income is a requirement for paying those loans back.

To justify the need for veterinary education in Arizona, Goeppinger cites projections from the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges (AAVMC) that there will be a shortage of 15,000 veterinarians over the next 20 years.

That estimate and others like it are a source of controversy, with the topic of supply and demand in the veterinary profession likely to top debates this weekend during AAVMC's annual meeting in Washington, D.C. Anecdotal reports and recent statistics reveal that the job market for veterinarians in all practice sectors is tighter and more depressed than it's been in recent history. What's more, government officials and others are beginning to recognize that an area may be underserved because it's unable to support a veterinarian.

Driving that perception are reports that newly minted veterinarians who've taken government-backed loan repayment assistance to work in underserved areas often can't find work. Last May, the American Association of Bovine Practitioners issued an opinion that “there is not currently a shortage of veterinarians for rural food supply veterinary private practice.”
The VIN News Service could not immediately reach veterinarians in rural Arizona or near Midwestern's campus in Glendale to get their take on whether the shortage of practitioners is real or perceived. Emily Kane, executive director of the Arizona Veterinary Medical Association, said a number of calls have come in from the group’s 1,100 members but was vague about the general reaction. She noted that the association is working closely with Midwestern on the program's developments. 

"They've kept us in the loop the entire time," Kane said. "They have indicated to us that we will in some way be involved with the school. We don't know what capacity that will be yet."

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