Influx of veterinary colleges on horizon

New programs give rise to supply and demand questions

January 26, 2013 (published)
By Jennifer Fiala

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 Within the next decade, Arizona could be home to a third as many veterinary students as veterinarians currently practicing in the state.   

That’s if two new colleges — one proposed at Midwestern University near Phoenix and another at the University of Arizona (UA) in Tucson — come to fruition.   

Class size for each program is projected at 100 seats. Roughly 1,800 veterinarians are licensed to practice in Arizona, one of 24 states in the country that currently are without an accredited veterinary medical program.   

“The schools in Arizona have determined that there’s a need (for veterinary education) on the students’ end,” said Dr. Kenneth Skinner, president of the Arizona Veterinary Medical Association (AZVMA). “Whether there’s a need for more veterinarians on the jobs end is up for debate.”  

Such uncertainty isn't unique to the Grand Canyon State. Across the country, new veterinary schools are forming at a rate not seen since the 1970s, a decade that birthed eight of the nation’s 28 veterinary medical colleges.  

Nearly 11,480 students are enrolled in those 28 programs.  

Apart from Arizona, plans for new schools are in the works in Buffalo, N.Y., and Harrogate, Tenn., near the Virginia and Kentucky borders.  

Helping feed the surge in new schools is a growing acceptance of veterinary education models that allow fledgling programs to forgo building teaching hospitals that can cost tens of millions of dollars. The trend among new schools is to construct smaller versions of on-campus hospitals and contract with private practices where students can develop their clinical acumen — a system known as the “distributive veterinary clinical education model.”

Right now, the American Veterinary Medical Association's Council on Education (AVMA COE), the nation's sole accreditor of veterinary education, is wrapping up a four-day site visit at Midwestern. The college is seeking a letter of reasonable assurance, the COE’s first step in accrediting new programs.  

Plans for Midwestern's veterinary medical program involve incorporating a small teaching hospital with distributive model-type learning, said Dr. Brian Sidaway, dean of the program. Tuition at the private, for-profit university will be in the range of $50,000 per year. This month, construction will begin on the first of three buildings.  

“It’s a good thing for the state, and it’s exciting times,” Sidaway said. “I personally feel like the state will benefit from it.”   

Asked to elaborate, Sidaway declined. He also declined to address whether Arizona needs more practitioners.

Supply and demand  

The topic is controversial. While some practitioners believe more veterinarians are needed to meet America's growing pet population as well as public health and food supply demands, others insist that there's an oversupply of veterinarians in the United States, especially in small animal practice. 

The latter viewpoint has gained traction in recent years, with veterinarians across the country citing increased competition. Still, the idea that there's an ever-growing shortfall of veterinarians in the United States has served as a foundation for growing new programs. Nearly every school emerging — including Midwestern — touts a prediction made in 2006 by the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges (AAVMC) that there will be shortage of 15,000 veterinarians in the next two decades.  

The AAVMC no longer stands behind that claim, stating that studies need to be done to better gauge market demands for veterinarians by workforce sector.   

The projection of a 15,000-veterinarian shortfall “was structured on data gathered almost 10 years ago,” AAVMC officials explained by email. “A lot has happened since then, including the greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression.”   

As in much of the American job market, there are signs that veterinarians do not work in the healthiest of professions. Many practitioners report going out of business or finding it hard to find work, having been squeezed by a tightening job market, suffocating student loan debt and a clientele that’s spread thin due to what some believe is an influx of veterinarians treating companion animals.   

Last spring, the National Research Council of the National Academies released a report on the veterinary workforce that cited a need for veterinarians to enter public health, agriculture and food safety areas. However, its authors retreated from the once-widely espoused notion that more veterinarians are needed generally in the United States, especially in the profession’s most populated sector — companion animal practice.  

At the same time, the U.S. Labor Department released an assessment that the job market for veterinarians is “good,” while predicting that the number of jobs for veterinarians will reach 83,400 by 2020. That’s an increase of 22,000 — or 36 percent — during the next decade.  

The AVMA, meanwhile, is in the midst of conducting its own workforce study. AAVMC officials are waiting for results from that report and others before issuing new supply and demand projections.   

“We’re looking forward to examining the upcoming AVMA workforce study, which is currently underway, as well as other data that can provide meaningful insights about future workforce demands,” AAVMC officials stated.   

COE headed to Lincoln Memorial   

Administrators at Lincoln Memorial University, a private liberal arts school in Harrogate, Tenn., plan to steer their veterinary students in the direction of large animal medicine, a field that’s arguably less saturated than small animal medicine, with some regions — mostly rural — devoid of any veterinary care.   

The newly formed College of Veterinary and Comparative Medicine is expected to enroll an inaugural class of 100 veterinary students by fall 2014.   

On Sunday, the COE will be reviewing the program and Lincoln Memorial’s facilities. Like Midwestern, Lincoln Memorial seeks a letter of reasonable assurance, a pre-accreditation action indicating that it’s realistic to believe the developing veterinary college will evolve to comply with U.S. accreditation standards.

Dr. Randy Evans, the new veterinary college’s dean, did not return phone calls or emails seeking information about the program or its status. 

A former consultant on the project, Dr. Peter Eyre, has described an educational model for Lincoln Memorial that mirrors the European system for educating veterinarians.

Speaking last March in Washington, D.C., Eyre said Lincoln Memorial plans to condense the eight years of education typically required in U.S. veterinary programs into six years, similar to education programs overseas.

Eyre, a longtime dean of the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine, said that with the six-year program, students would earn their bachelor’s and DVM degrees concurrently. Allowing them to graduate more quickly, he said, might ease the burden of ever-increasing tuition expenses.

“If the deans continue increasing their tuition and class sizes, who is going to make it less expensive to earn a DVM degree?” he asked the audience. Given that Eyre no longer is associated with Lincoln Memorial, it's unclear whether the program's officials still aim to create a less costly and time consuming route to earning a veterinary degree.

Not only six-figure debt, but joblessness could be on the horizon for some veterinarians.   

Last year, the AVMA surveyed graduating veterinarians and found that they’d received fewer job offers than their counterparts in years past. What’s more, average salaries had declined for the second year in a row, totaling $65,404, while average student debt rose 6.4 percent to $151,672 at the time of graduation.   

“... It is troubling that graduates are receiving fewer job offers and that compensation is not keeping pace with the cost of attaining a veterinary degree,” AVMA President Dr. Doug Aspros stated in a news release.  

Veterinary education in Buffalo

Roughly six hours northwest of Aspros’ two Manhattan-area practices, a plan brews to educate veterinarians in Buffalo, N.Y.   

Last summer, the development company Chason Affinity announced a $65 million proposal to turn the abandoned Millard Fillmore Gates Circle Hospital into a veterinary medical college and teaching hospital. Within the next five years, proponents of the project say, as many as 600 students could be enrolled there.   

Pushing the deal is Mark Cushing, an Oregon-based attorney and consultant who is a powerful player in veterinary college development and accreditation.   

Cushing was involved in Western University of Health Sciences in Pomona, Calif., the first veterinary medical school in the country to forgo the use of a teaching hospital in favor of the distributive model. The college’s decade-long quest for accreditation culminated with a lawsuit against the AVMA that was dismissed before the program received the COE’s nod in 2011.    

He also consulted with the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) in Mexico City, a veterinary medical program steeped in controversy, and has lobbied on behalf of Banfield Pet Hospital.

Cushing’s website features glowing quotes from past clients, including Dr. Francisco Trigo, former dean of UNAM’s School of Veterinary Medicine and Zootechnics.   

"The accreditation of veterinary colleges, particularly those based outside of the United States, presents unique challenges, and we greatly appreciated the strategic advice and counsel from Mark during our successful process with the COE,” Trigo said.   

Cushing did not return several emails and phone calls seeking details about the Buffalo plans, but in an on-air interview with a local news station, he said that America’s pet population has “exploded,” warranting a need for more veterinary medical programs.  

In a local news article, Cushing noted that just three veterinary schools exist between New England, New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

"Over half the pets in the United States receive virtually no veterinary care, so rest assured, there is an acute need for veterinarians to provide medical care to pets," Cushing said.   

Some refute the claim that greater pet numbers translate to greater numbers of veterinary patients.   

A study released in 2011 by Brakke Consulting Inc., the National Commission on Veterinary Economic Issues (NCVEI) and Bayer Animal Health showed that isn’t the case. What’s more, a subsequent study by the American Animal Hospital Association showed numbers of clients per full-time veterinarian on the decline.  

UA to study feasibility

Whether those reports will factor in the University of Arizona’s (UA) quest to develop a veterinary college remains to be seen. Located in Tucson, two hours southeast of Midwestern University’s Phoenix-area campus, officials at UA say they’re poised to serve a need for veterinarians in rural counties, especially along the New Mexico border.   

While Midwestern has jumped ahead with plans to develop its veterinary college, UA has kicked around the idea for 30 years. In October, the Arizona Board of Regents approved $3 million to study the feasibility of developing a veterinary college at UA.   

The allocation requires Gov. Jan Brewer’s signature.   

“We’re going to start pushing for a response over the course of the next two weeks or so,” said Charles Sterling, head of UA’s Department of Veterinary Science and Microbiology. “This is a very serious effort, but it’s going to require some support to get this thing off the ground.”   

Sterling noted that UA’s preliminary plans for a veterinary medical program involve using the distributive model rather than building a teaching hospital. Officials also envision condensing the time it takes to become a veterinarian.  

“We’re a whole different ballgame,” Sterling said of UA’s anticipated program. “But until we hear from the governor’s office, we can’t plan anything, really.”  

Wait and see

The idea that Arizona could one day be home to two veterinary colleges that collectively graduate 200 students a year hasn’t grabbed the attention of veterinarians in the state, said Skinner, the AZVMA president.   

“Veterinarians in general are apathetic,” he said. “They’re not the first ones to jump up and make a fuss.”   

Skinner acknowledged that greater competition in his area could harm his practice. At the same time, an increase in new graduates seeking work would drive down salaries for practice owners looking to hire them.  

“I haven’t gotten any calls or letters from anyone objecting,” he said. “Nobody is standing up loudly. It’s hard for me to pinpoint what veterinarians are thinking about this.”  

Dr. Jim McDonald, an AVMA delegate who owns a large animal practitioner in Camp Verde, Ariz., agrees that his colleagues seem indifferent.  

“If you ask veterinarians across the state, at best, they’re unaware. At worst, they’re unconcerned,” he said.   

What the ultimate outcome will be for Arizona veterinarians remains to be seen. For now, Skinner’s not making predictions.    

“Who knows where we’ll be five years from now when Midwestern graduates its first class? It could be 10 years for the University of Arizona,” he said. “Will the economy be better? Will there be a need when baby boomers retire? No one knows that answer.”  

Editor's Note: This article was amended from its original to reflect that Dr. Peter Eyre no longer is tied to the upcoming veterinary college at Lincoln Memorial University.


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