Clinic to serve needy pet owners, veterinary students

High school setting believed to be a first

February 22, 2012 (published)
By Edie Lau

Photo courtesy of Worcester Technical High School
Worcester Technical High School is opening a community veterinary clinic to serve pets from low-income households. The clinic will be staffed by high school students studying veterinary assisting and fourth-year students from Tufts University Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine.
Tufts University is opening a non-profit community veterinary clinic this spring that will combine teaching of veterinary students and veterinary assistant trainees with service to low-income pet owners in one unusual setting.

The clinic will be located at Worcester Technical High School in Worcester, Mass., a 15-minute drive from Tufts’ Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine in North Grafton.

Overseen full-time by a private practitioner and staffed by veterinary and high school students, the clinic will be open five days a week and offer a range of primary-care services, including spaying and neutering, vaccinations, dental cleanings and extractions, X-rays and minor surgeries.

Only low-income pet owners will have access to the clinic; clients must provide proof of eligibility.

Dr. Elizabeth Rozanski, an associate professor of emergency and critical care at Tufts and an architect of the plan, said organizers are keen on ensuring that the clinic not take away business from private practices in the area.

“We’re very cognizant of that,” Rozanski said. “We’ll absolutely income-verify: ‘Are you on some kind of state or federal assistance?’ We want to make certain that animals are not receiving care elsewhere, or that this practice could negatively impact any local practitioners.”

Its combination of characteristics — location in a high school; teaming of veterinary students with teen-aged assistants; and being a freestanding full-time facility for underserved patients — make the clinic highly unusual in this country, and possibly unique.

“This appears to be the first of its kind in all of those ways,” said Sharon Curtis Granskog, a spokeswoman for the American Veterinary Medical Association. “Certainly, the majority of the schools accept individual hardship cases for teaching purposes, but this is quite a bit different. Many schools collaborate with local shelters to increase the number of spays and neuters students get to do. Some of those shelters probably see a fair number of low-income people that adopt animals. Again, this is quite a bit different.”

She added: “It is possible that there is another school doing this but we have not heard of it.”

Rozanski said the idea germinated 2-1/2 years ago during a visit to Worcester Technical High School. Part of the public school system, Worcester Tech admits students on a competitive basis and offers training in a variety of vocations, such as automobile repair, nursing assistance, food service, salon services and veterinary assisting.

The last program is taught by two veterinary technicians who used to work at Tufts. One of the teachers invited the college to give a presentation to the high school students. The teacher explained some of the challenges she had in teaching techniques such as animal restraint. “She can talk about it, she can show videos, but then they have (only) stuffed cats to restrain,” Rozanski said.

While visiting Worcester Tech, Rozanski was impressed by beauty of the facility, which was built in 2006 in a downtrodden neighborhood. “They have a beauty salon, a restaurant,” she recounted. “I said, ‘What do you think about putting a clinic in here?’ ”

The idea took root.

Rozanski said the veterinary school dean’s office consulted with the Massachusetts Veterinary Medical Association and sent letters soliciting input from private practitioners located within five miles of the high school.

“It was a heads-up: ‘We’re thinking of this, is this in any way stressful for you?’ ” Rozanski said.

Many local veterinarians responded with support, she said, noting that they cannot afford to offer unlimited discounts to pet owners of limited means.

Consulting with veterinarians in the community should help to build goodwill with the profession at large, which is experiencing increasing tension between for-profit and non-profit clinics, said Dr. Gary Block, past president of the Rhode Island Veterinary Medical Association and the Society for Veterinary Medical Ethics.

As co-owner of a referral and emergency clinic, Block said he is not personally directly affected by discount spay-neuter clinics and the like, but he’s aware of the potential for friction. “About two years ago, a fairly large-volume spay-neuter clinic opened here in Rhode Island and absolutely rubbed the veterinary community the wrong way,” he said.

A study released last year by Bayer Animal Health, Brakke Consulting and the National Commission on Veterinary Economic Issues examined why veterinary visits are declining in number despite a growing pet population in America. Fragmentation of services was identified as one of the factors. The researchers said that when pet owners use discount clinics for procedures such as spays, neuters and vaccinations, traditional veterinarians lose “starter” visits that serve to establish long-term relationships.

But there should be no problem with a clinic that serves people who otherwise lack the means to take their pets to veterinarians, Block said. “I would say Tufts should be commended for trying to bring veterinary services to what is generally seen as an underserved community,” he said. “We all know that preventive care is almost always more medically successful and financially wise than waiting for animals to be seen when they’re sick or ill.”

Since 2009, Tufts veterinary school has reached out to underserved pet owners by holding annual free vaccination and wellness clinics at Worcester Housing Authority residences. The Housing Authority manages rental units subsidized by the state and federal governments. Rozanski said the once-a-year visits revealed the need for a greater breadth of veterinary services to be available on a regular basis.

For example, Housing Authority rules state that pets must be spayed or neutered, but many animals slip through the cracks, especially those obtained as puppies and kittens, she said. The veterinarians and veterinary students also saw dangerous health exposures such as secondhand smoke, and troubling medical conditions such as unclean and decaying teeth.
“We saw one (dog) with a huge perianal mass and ... couldn’t do anything for him,” she recalled.

Rozanski estimated that the Housing Authority alone houses 750 to 1,000 pets.

Worcester Tech students have been involved directly in making the clinic a reality. They came up with the clinic’s name, Tufts at Tech Community Veterinary Clinic, with the catchy nickname Tufts@Tech. And those studying the construction trades designed and are remodeling the space formerly used for a horticulture program. The clinic will have a small footprint, Rozanski said: two classrooms and a hallway.

Dr. Greg Wolfus, a Tufts alumnus who has been in private practice, was hired to oversee the clinic. Rozanski said the plan is to have two or three Tufts fourth-year veterinary students serving on rotation at a given time, working 40 to 50 hours per week.

The high school veterinary assistant program, which has about 35 to 40 students, would supply four to six assistants at a time.

Rozanski said organizers hope the clinic will see 10 to 15 patients a day, and become self-sufficient in two years.

Along with giving Tufts students direct primary-care experience, the clinic also will be a place to learn the business aspects of veterinary practice, Rozanski said.

“One of the goals is to (have them) figure out how much money they would have generated in a full-service clinic by how hard they worked,” she said, so that they “recognize that you don’t get paid as a veterinarian (just) because you love animals.”

An eventual goal is to use the clinic as a resource for research on public health questions such as the effects of secondhand smoke in pets and whether and how pets may be affected by toxicity from lead in the environment, Rozanski said.

For the moment, a few logistical details have yet to be worked out. For example, the high school day starts early, at 7:20 a.m., and ends early, at 1:43 p.m. Would clinic hours extend beyond that? Similarly, how should the clinic handle the school’s spring, winter and summer breaks?

Once the wrinkles are ironed out, and assuming all goes smoothly, Rozanski said, the clinic will open within a month or two.

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