Study: No widespread shortage of veterinarians

Veterinary presence needed in public health, agriculture, food safety

May 30, 2012 (published)
By Jennifer Fiala

The National Research Council of the National Academies released a book-length report today highlighting the job market for veterinarians as well as challenges facing academia, agriculture and public health sectors.

Four years in the making, Workforce Needs in Veterinary Medicine spans 320 pages, taking an in-depth look at the economic issues universities deal with due to eroding state support, the questionable sustainability of skyrocketing tuition and the dwindling presence of veterinarians in agriculture and food safety.

During a webinar held to brief stakeholders and media on the study’s findings, the chairman of an 18-member committee charged with conducting the study's research addressed why the project took so long to complete. It was commissioned in 2006 by several major players in organized veterinary medicine, including the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) and initially was slated for release by fall 2008. The deadline was extended seven times.

Dr. Alan Kelly, committee chairman, likened the work to a “dramatically shifting target,” noting that the study’s original focus on zoonosis, bioterrorism and the premise that the nation would see a shortfall of 15,000 veterinarians by 2025, eventually shifted to the economic downturn’s impact on the profession.

“The report became a continual work in progress,” said Kelly, dean emeritus of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine.

“Preparing the report was hard,” he added, “as we found the databases in veterinary medicine confusing, incomplete, difficult to find and inconsistent, making it difficult to draw long-term conclusions.”

The report cites a need for veterinarians to infiltrate public health, agriculture and food safety areas, however its authors retreated from the once-widely espoused notion that a large influx of veterinarians is needed in the United States, especially in the profession’s most populated sector — companion animal practice.

“We found little evidence of widespread shortages, meaning that well-paying jobs are going unfilled,” stated Malcolm Getz, an economist at Vanderbilt University and member of the committee responsible for producing the study.

“The sign of shortages are significant increases in earnings … and with the exception of industry, earnings are growing slowly if at all,” Getz said during the webinar. “Salary levels are mismatched relative to educational investments.”

Others presenting the report highlighted the abysmal state of funding for academia, which has lost much of its support from state legislatures in recent years and now more heavily leans on students via sharp tuition increases.

The impact of this not only weighs heavily on students, it forces programs to forgo hiring faculty, which leads to fewer grants and less research, said Dr. Bennie Osburn, dean emeritus of the University of California-Davis School of Veterinary Medicine.

“Some schools are at the point where they’re now cutting programs,” Osburn said during the presentation. “This puts a strain on … meeting standards of accreditation.

“Tuition costs increase because as state funds go away the cost of education is being passed on to students. The steep increases, however, have not made up for reductions in state funding,” he added.

In response, Kelly presented several scenarios outlined in the report for lowering the cost of education, thereby easing the student loan burden for new veterinary graduates.

One idea he supports: Creating pre-veterinary medical school curricula that can be completed within one to two years of study rather than the four years of undergraduate work most widely expected by veterinary college admissions.

“In Britain we go from high school to veterinary school, and I’ve never understood why some very bright students in the U.S. need to first go to school for four years,” said Kelly, who was educated at universities in the United Kingdom. “The overall cost and length of time before a person can capitalize on training … is an extreme burden for students and families.”

Overall, the committee called for partnerships, resource sharing and collective action to strengthen the profession’s foundations.

The report acknowledged the difficulties tied to balancing supply and demand — a key element to maintaining the economic sustainability of veterinary practice and education.

“Matching the supply of veterinarians to demand for veterinary expertise depends on the commitment of the profession to promote and develop diverse careers paths in veterinary medicine and on the efficient delivery of veterinary services,” the report said.

Along with the AVMA, the study was funded by the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges, the American Animal Hospital Association, Bayer Animal Health and the Burroughs Welcome Fund.


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