Veterinary medicine’s future incites debate

Topics include limited licensure, tracking, accreditation

September 8, 2008 (published)
By Jennifer Fiala

Washington — Year 2030: Limited licensure is the norm, narrowed accreditation standards allow for focus centers among veterinary institutions and DVMs include everyone from environmental scientists and public-health heroes to Norman Rockwell veterinarians.

Such a forecast might seem unlikely, but calls to revolutionize U.S. veterinary education in time to meet society’s increasing demands of the profession are mapped out in what’s been dubbed the Foresight Report, commissioned last year by the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges (AAVMC). With an American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) task force exploring the report’s recommendations, AAVMC now wants to create a consortium of stakeholders to start concrete debates on future changes necessary to keep the profession leading animal and public health, science and medicine, insiders say.

In the next 60 days, AAVMC leaders hope to gain positive feedback and as much as $400,000 in aid to fund three separate meetings for what’s titled the North American Veterinary Medical Education Consortium. It’s a necessary move, officials say, because veterinary medicine is transitioning, and the profession’s education system needs to be restructured in a dramatic way.

“Licensing, tracking, accreditation of schools — they’re all issues that must be on the table,” says Dr. Michael Chaddock, AAVMC associate executive director.

Why? Because in order to remain relevant, status quo won’t do, says Dr. Bennie Osburn, dean of the University of California-Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. Not only is the United States not graduating enough veterinarians (roughly 2,400 annually), the vast majority is headed into small-animal practice, leaving sectors like public health and food-animal medicine severely lacking, he says. What’s more, the current curriculum is already stretched, leaving little room to adequately educate veterinarians in all necessary segments. 

“It’s eminently clear that we can’t go on being everything to everybody,” Osburn says. “The global societal environment is shifting. Veterinary medical education must prepare new veterinarians for what might come in the future, not for what can be seen today.”

If that kind of talk sounds vague, the 42-page Foresight Report, formally titled “Envisioning the Future of Veterinary Medical Education,” explains it with conceptual scenarios that take an in-depth look at veterinary medicine’s evolution during the next 25 years. The study, authored by Canadian consulting firm The Norm Willis Group, uses foresight technology to envision the future of academic veterinary medicine and the profession’s future roles in society.

It’s conclusions are clear: If efforts aren’t made to balance and increase DVM output among all modalities, society will be left with a deficiency of veterinarians in almost all professional areas.

“What is the future of specialization concerning companion animals? What will our role be in food safety beyond meat inspection?” Osburn asks. “It’s going to be hard to meet society’s expectations. Limited licensure is probably coming, so it will be nice if we can come to some agreement on that.”

The legitimacy of that prediction and others largely hinges on a $600,000 study slated for release any day by the National Academies of Sciences. The analysis, funded jointly by AAVMC and AVMA, is designed to objectively map the nation’s supply of veterinarians demographically and among all workforce sectors. The hope, officials say, is that concrete data might lend credence to anecdotal reports of DVM shortfalls in food-animal medicine, public health and other areas as well as definitively answer one mammoth question: Is there a surplus of small-animal veterinarians?

Dr. Ralph Richardson, dean of Kansas State University’s veterinary medical program, says no one really knows the answer to that. In the meantime, he’s revamped the college’s curriculum based on the Foresight Report’s suggestions. The changes, in an implementation stage, involve knocking credit hours from core courses like nutrition and allowing students to take the remaining information as an elective. That leaves room to require other subject areas, like business, he says. 

“One of the things that will come of this is that we need to have centers of excellence, schools focusing on regional needs and teaching things that others do not,” Richardson says. “As veterinarians, we have multifaceted careers opportunities, and I think this is the only way we can educate students for what’s being expected. That said, I think limited licensure will be present in some areas of our country, but I’m not ready for it, at least not yet.”

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