Alaska veterinary education advocates cite unique needs

Partnership with Colorado State begins in 2015

January 3, 2014 (published)
By Edie Lau

Photo courtesy of the University of Alaska Fairbanks
University of Alaska Fairbanks Associate Veterinarian Dr. Carla Willetto helps Lily Ngai, a veterinary student from Colorado State University, learn to auscultate, or listen to the internal sounds of, a reindeer from a university research herd. Ngai spent last summer at UAF as part of an exchange program. The universities expect that their new formal veterinary education partnership will expand opportunities for exchanges among students and faculty alike.
Up to 10 Alaskans may enter veterinary school each year without leaving their state beginning in 2015 as a result of a new partnership between the University of Alaska Fairbanks and Colorado State University.

Students will attend their first two years of veterinary school in Fairbanks, then move to Fort Collins, Colo., for their third and fourth years. To qualify, they must meet application standards set by Colorado State’s College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, which will confer the degrees.

The Alaska-Colorado deal is the latest of several such alliances formed in the past seven years between existing veterinary schools and states that lack veterinary medical programs of their own.

In 2007, the University of Nebraska at Lincoln began what’s known as a 2+2 program with Iowa State University College of Veterinary Medicine, enabling 25 students per year to begin their veterinary education in Nebraska.

In 2012, the Utah State University started a 2+2 partnership with Washington State University College of Veterinary Medicine. The program provides for 20 Utah residents plus 10 out-of-state students to begin their veterinary medical studies in Utah.

This fall, Montana State University in Bozeman will introduce a 1+3 partnership with Washington State. Up to 10 residents will be able to do their first year of veterinary school in Montana before continuing onto Washington.

All told, there are 28 accredited veterinary schools in 26 states. Two new schools are scheduled to open this fall, bringing the total to 30 in 27 states. Two accredited programs in the Caribbean also attract a large share of American students.

The growth of veterinary education in the United States is causing some concern in veterinary circles due to its potential to aggravate what some perceive as a surplus of practitioners.

Supporters of the Alaska-Colorado partnership acknowledge the workforce concerns, but say Alaska has unique needs for veterinarians — especially homegrown practitioners familiar with the state’s culture, landscape and extreme northerly climate.

“Here in Alaska, we have a fairly high turnover of veterinarians, as most of our positions are filled by veterinarians coming from the Lower 48 states, and not all of them make the adjustment to life here well,” said Dr. Arleigh Reynolds, who will head the program in Fairbanks as an associate dean in the College of Natural Science and Mathematics. “Also, this is not just about producing veterinarians for Alaska; it is about making this opportunity available for students from Alaska.”

Alaska State Veterinarian Dr. Robert Gerlach pointed to a need in the state for research on the effects of climate change on wildlife populations, including sea animals upon which native communities rely for subsistence, and the potential for emerging diseases in wildlife to infect livestock and other domestic animals.

“We’re in need of veterinarians in farm-animal agriculture, wildlife, within fisheries and medical research,” said Gerlach, who took part in some discussions as the university program was being planned, but was not directly involved. “We need to … try to direct students into those directions, not (so much) small-animal work.”

Gerlach noted that Alaska has a higher-than-average ratio of veterinarians per capita, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to easy access to veterinary services, owing to the geographic size of the state, which is more than twice that of the next largest state, Texas.

Gerlach, who attended veterinary school in Pennsylvania, believes the biggest challenge to practicing in Alaska is not winter darkness or prolonged subfreezing temperatures, as some might think, but the distances between population centers. That distance may explain why some parts of the state are short on veterinary services.

Since 2010, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has listed five veterinary “shortage situations” in Alaska as part of its Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program. Veterinarians accepted into the program commit to working three years in shortage areas in exchange for up to $75,000 in payments on their student loans. Alaska, however, has received no veterinarians through the program since its inception four years ago.

Reynolds said far-flung rural communities in Alaska have a need for medical services of all types. “The health care in those areas is challenging at best,” he said, noting that some remote communities lack even a nurse practitioner. Consequently, program organizers are considering ways to provide veterinary students with additional knowledge and skills — such as by offering emergency medical training and perhaps a master’s degree program in public health.

Dr. Dean Hendrickson, associate dean of the Professional Veterinary Medicine Program  at Colorado State, emphasized a desire to train students in the perspective of One Health — an approach that recognizes the health of humans, animals and the environment as intimately connected.

“If we do this right, the veterinarian in Alaska can fill a lot of roles,” Hendrickson said. “Our thought is … there is a niche to fill (in the state) and if we can bring Alaskans in, they’re more likely to fill it.”

Dr. Ariana Macksey Anderson moved to Juneau last summer with her husband, who is in the Coast Guard. As a part-time practitioner in a small animal clinic, her perception is that the need for veterinary services in Alaska is genuine but challenging.

Writing on a message board of the Veterinary Information Network, an online community for the profession, Anderson said: “While I think the ‘vet shortage’ is probably true in Alaska more than in many other places, I suspect vets still will find that to have a guaranteed job, they have to be willing to go just about anywhere. I don’t know how the job market is in Anchorage and Fairbanks, but in Juneau, it feels just about saturated.

“I was thankful to get a weekend job at the only clinic open on weekends (which is all I wanted at this point). There are many small communities that don’t have a veterinarian, but a veterinarian couldn’t make a full-time practice out of that one place. I know of at least a couple vets (out of a dozen or so total in Juneau) that travel quite a bit to different remote communities. Not a great situation for a new grad.

“On the other hand,” she added, “I was glad to hear that there is some option for Alaskans who want to be veterinarians. I was shocked when I moved here ... and heard that there was no vet school where they would not have to pay out-of-state tuition. At least with this program, it’s only two years of that.”

Providing residents with an in-state option for veterinary education may mean more in Alaska than in other states owing to its singular geography and culture. “A lot of people who grow up here, especially people in remote areas, have never been outside the state,” said Reynolds, who has lived in Alaska since 1998 and is a champion sled dog racer. “They are culturally and physically bound to the climate and the landscape. … The closest veterinary school, Washington State University, is 2,500 miles away.”

The new veterinary program will give priority to Alaska residents, although non-residents will be considered if not enough eligible residents apply. Reynolds predicted that there will be more interested students than available slots.

“We expect a pretty big applicant pool, especially this first year,” he said. “I don’t want to put a number on it, but I think there will be many qualified applicants, more than we have spaces for. Hopefully, they will reapply (in subsequent years).”

Alaska students will be charged resident tuition rates equal to Colorado's in-state tuition while studying in Alaska, then will be charged non-resident tuition once they move to Colorado. The annual in-state tuition is expected to total nearly $27,000 in fall 2015, and the annual out-of-state tuition is expected to be about $54,000 when the inaugural class arrives at Colorado in 2017, according to a Colorado State news release.

In other veterinary education collaborations between universities, the sending states cover the difference between resident and non-resident tuition, enabling students to pay only resident tuition rates throughout their four years. Program organizers in Alaska are hoping to be able to offer the same deal to students, but as yet have not secured a means to do so.

Hendrickson said one possibility is for Alaska to offer the tuition assistance to students in exchange for a promise to return to the state to work.

Reynolds said that employment opportunities, in addition to private practice and government work, may be found with native corporations, which are significant players in the state’s economy.

The state legislature, for its part, has committed $400,000 per year to support the veterinary program, Reynolds said. The funding is enabling the university to hire faculty. Reynolds said the university so far has hired an anatomist and a large-animal extension veterinarian, and plans to hire a pathologist, physiologist and internist.

An existing faculty member, Dr. Todd O’Hara, a board-certified veterinary toxicologist, will serve as a student adviser, offering mentoring and support starting at the high school level with prospective students, and continuing through graduation from the professional school, Reynolds said.

Even before the hiring spree, University of Alaska Fairbanks counted eight DVMs in its faculty and administration. For example, Dr. John Blake is director of the Animal Resources Center and associate vice chancellor for research. Reynolds is a board-certified veterinary nutritionist with expertise in exercise physiology. A research scientist for Ralston Purina, he was an adjunct faculty member at the university before being appointed as an associate dean.

In Colorado, veterinary school representatives expect the collaboration to be of mutual benefit. Hendrickson, the associate dean, said classes in Colorado and Alaska alike may be made available to students on the other campus via online streaming video. Students in Colorado may spend time in Alaska for summer or winter research programs. Such exchanges already occur, but with the partnership, the opportunities should be greater, he said. Faculty collaborations also may increase.

Colorado admits about 140 new veterinary students each year to the Fort Collins campus, and the partnership with Alaska won’t change that. Hendrickson said the university expects the 10 students arriving in Colorado in their third year will fill vacancies created by attrition.

He noted that attrition has increased in the past four to five years. Whereas 10 years ago, a class might shrink by only two or three students over the course of four years, today, Hendrickson said, attrition is running closer to six to eight students. With that in mind, he said, “bringing in 10 more doesn’t seem like that many more.”

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