New Zealand's pandemic controls strain veterinary workforce

Practitioners fear border closures aggravate labor deficit

October 8, 2020 (published)
By Ross Kelly

New Zealand Veterinary Association photo
Dairy cows outnumber people in New Zealand. The country's large population of animals raised for food creates a relatively high need for rural veterinarians.

New Zealand may be the envy of the world for its ultra-low COVID-19 caseload. But the Southern Pacific nation's strict approach to lockdowns and national border closures comes with a consequence for the veterinary community: It's exacerbating long-standing worries about a labor shortage.

Overseas graduates account for nearly one-third of New Zealand's veterinary workforce. Last year, for instance, 30% of the 2,633 practicing veterinarians registered in the country had obtained their veterinary degrees in other countries, according to the 2018-19 workforce report of the Veterinary Council of New Zealand, the profession's regulatory body. The proportion was about the same in each year of the preceding decade. With the nation's borders closed to most nonresidents since March 20, a vital source of talent has now been disrupted for more than six months and counting.

New Zealand's newfound reluctance to accept skilled migrants is seen by lawmakers as a necessary evil to support what is widely considered to be one of the world's most successful COVID-19 management strategies. Today, the country recorded just three new cases of the highly contagious disease in the previous 24 hours, bringing the nation's total number of confirmed and probable cases to 1,864, according to government figures

New Zealand got on top of an initial surge in COVID-19 cases by swiftly introducing a strict national lockdown on March 25 that was gradually eased through June. A small batch of fresh cases cropped up again in Auckland, the nation's most populous city, in August, prompting a return to some restrictions on social and business activities. Those restrictions were lifted this week. So far, 25 people in New Zealand have perished from COVID-19, equivalent to roughly one per 200,000 people in the population. By comparison, in the United States, which has the world's highest number of mortalities, about 210,00 people have died — roughly one of every 1,570 of its population.

The potentially negative implications of New Zealand's pandemic strategy for the veterinary community has prompted its chief lobbying group, the New Zealand Veterinary Association (NZVA), to call on lawmakers to let more foreign-trained practitioners in. Critical shortage of veterinarians just not sexy enough is the title of a provocative press release issued by the association to draw attention to its concerns. By "not sexy enough," the NZVA is referring to a controversial decision by the government in May to allow hundreds of foreign film-industry workers into the country. New Zealand is where much of the Lord of the Rings trilogy was shot, and it's currently hosting filming of a sequel to Avatar.

The NZVA's efforts to ascribe veterinarians a similar economic status as film workers is gaining some traction. On Sept. 22, New Zealand's immigration minister, Kris Faafoi, said that up to 30 foreign veterinarians would be granted border exemptions (along with 570 deep-sea fishing crew and 210 agricultural and horticultural workers).

The move was welcomed by the NZVA, although it wants the government to go further. "We're very thankful for the work the minister did in supporting us and are mindful they're having to make tough choices," NZVA chief veterinary officer Dr. Helen Beattie told the VIN News Service. "Thirty is obviously a step in the right direction, but it does still leave a pretty significant hole in our workforce."

Fears of veterinarian shortages are coming at a time when the need for their services appears to be picking up. Many practices around the globe are experiencing a rebound in demand as a backlog of work is cleared, following an easing of lockdowns. Pet owners working from home have been paying more attention to their animals, prompting more veterinary visits, practitioners say, and there also have been widespread reports of a boom in puppy and kitten adoptions.

"I suspect that sometimes animal owners are getting turned away because there's no gaps in the current appointment roster," Beattie said. "There's been quite a surge in the use of veterinary services post our lockdown here." For the most part, though, Beattie said, veterinarians are still getting the job done. "Vets keep stretching themselves to make things work."

The consequences of a labor shortage reach beyond companion animal medicine. New Zealand is a large exporter of agricultural products and is by far the world's biggest milk exporter by volume, ahead of Germany, the Netherlands and the United States. A lack of veterinary oversight in the dairy sector, as well as in the country's large meat export industry, has negative implications for biosecurity, quality control and animal welfare, industry representatives say.

"New Zealand relies on an influx of overseas vets to fill gaps in the workforce so it's easy to see why we are getting a crunch in vacancies with the current border restrictions," said Dr. Mark Hosking, chief executive of Franklin Vets. Franklin Vets has farm, companion animal and equine divisions, with 10 clinics spread around the country's North Island.

A problem years in the making?

Some practitioners and representative organizations, including the NZVA, say New Zealand's response to the pandemic isn't the only factor putting downward pressure on veterinary numbers. Concerns of a deficit in the profession have been ongoing for decades, a perception based on anecdotal accounts or practice survey results.

The Veterinary Council of New Zealand confirmed that it doesn't have exhaustive figures to provide hard evidence of a labor shortage. "We can quite easily tell the supply side of the equation: how many vets there are, where they're situated and what they're working on," its chief executive and registrar, Iain McLachlan, told VIN News. "What we can't measure so easily is what real demand is," he said, noting that many practices are private businesses that don't publicly disclose their performance.

McLachlan said regulators can at least make educated guesses about demand, based on factors such as livestock units or numbers of pets in a particular area. "There has been plenty of anecdotal evidence of a shortage," he said. "Every time the association puts out their monthly magazine, you look at the job adverts [for veterinarians] and we see a ton of those. We know it's been a problem for a long time. That's what the practices have been telling us."

Hosking at Franklin Vets said his group employs someone 25 hours a week to work exclusively on recruitment. Franklin Vets employs about 150 people, including more than 50 veterinarians. Hosking said that overall, business is faring relatively well. "Locality-wise, we are not too bad, either, so can attract vets; however, we have three current vacancies for experienced vets that we are struggling to fill," he said.

Photo courtesy of Dr. Helen Beattie
The New Zealand Veterinary Association is concerned that border controls imposed by the government in response to the pandemic may overburden the veterinary workforce. Dr. Helen Beattie is chief veterinary officer of the organization.

According to a snap poll conducted last month by the NZVA of its members, the 124 practices that responded reported a combined shortfall of 224 veterinarians. The NZVA's Beattie was quick to stress that the poll wasn't a peer-reviewed scientific study, nor did it reflect experiences of the roughly 35% of the country's veterinary community who aren't members of the NZVA. "The poll was very rough and ready," she said. "But it did give us an indication of what was required before we spoke to the government about the border closure."

Complaints of veterinarian shortages aren't unique to New Zealand. The United Kingdom, for instance, is facing a shortage of veterinarians blamed, at least in part, on a separation from the European Union that has made many foreign nationals feel unwelcome there. Some practitioners in Australia, Canada and the United States also complain of labor shortages, although the extent of the problem, or if it even exists, is often debated amid fears that producing more veterinary graduates could put downward pressure on pay and professional standards. 

In New Zealand, Beattie points out that veterinarians are on the country's Long Term Skill Shortage List. In the government's words, the list is for occupations that are in "sustained shortage all over New Zealand."

Beattie and other veterinary leaders maintain that the profession globally is facing a retention challenge driven by well-being issues that are highlighted, in part, by the profession's higher-than-average suicide rates. She adds that the fact that so many veterinarians based in New Zealand hail from overseas provides further evidence of a local supply issue. "We cannot fill the capacity from our locally trained vets," Beattie said. "I'm not sure if that's [a problem] around the number we're training or around the number we're retaining. It gets a bit tricky to start to unpack."

The latest data from the Veterinary Council of New Zealand indicates that around 25% of veterinarians leave the local profession after 10 years, measured by practitioners not renewing their annual license. The dropout rate for veterinarians who qualified overseas is much higher, at around 70 to 75%, indicating that most of them end up going back home.

On the training side of the equation, New Zealand has only one veterinary college: Massey University School of Veterinary Science, which was established in 1963 with an initial intake of 32 students. Nowadays, the school accepts 100 domestic students and 30 international students for its five-year undergraduate degree. (Unlike in the U.S., veterinary medicine in New Zealand is an undergraduate program).

The school's dean, Dr. Jon Huxley, shares the view that the country's veterinary workforce is overstretched. "The shortage is indeed real and becoming severe," he told VIN News. "The current border restrictions are causing the New Zealand profession, and by extension, our clients and the animals under our care, significant challenges."

The number of students that Massey is able to accept each year is controlled by the government's Tertiary Education Commission. "We would be delighted to train larger numbers of students, and that is an ongoing conversation with government, but unfortunately this is not a short-term fix," Huxley said. "It takes five years to train a vet through our Bachelor of Veterinary Science program, so any changes to our student intake which occur today would not graduate until 2026."

'Crisis point' predicted by 2029

Dr. Jason Lowe, a practitioner with 20 years of experience, anticipated even before the pandemic that the New Zealand market could reach a crisis point by the end of the decade if veterinarians keep leaving the profession. By "crisis point," Lowe says he means a situation where there wouldn't be enough veterinarians to treat every animal in need. Currently, he said, veterinarians are handling the workload, but often at a cost to their well-being. "People are being stretched," he said. "I've got colleagues that are still in clinical practice. They do an 'eight-hour day' in a 14-hour day and just get the work done."

Lowe is now managing director of Innovative Medical Solutions, a company based in Cambridge, New Zealand, that markets a treatment for osteoarthritis and other non-infectious causes of joint lameness.

While studying for an MBA at the University of Waikato, Lowe wrote his thesis on leadership development opportunities in the veterinary realm. The June 2017 paper posits that a lack of leadership contributes to relatively high dropout rates among veterinarians in New Zealand. Lowe based his findings on nine in-depth interviews with five senior veterinarians and four younger practitioners.

"The burnout rate is still really high and that has a lot to do with mental health issues," Lowe said. "That is where leadership comes in, and I'm not just talking about the owner of the business. It's also about personal leadership — to be able to take care of yourself or look at triggers for getting stressed out and being able to do something about it."

Lowe, too, is unable to reference any peer-reviewed research that shows the extent of a worker shortage in New Zealand's veterinary community. But nobody doubts that the current border closure acts as a talent drain, especially given the country's relatively high proportion of foreign-trained veterinarians. In nearby Australia, for example, just 9% of graduates obtained their primary veterinary degree overseas, according to the latest count by the Australian Veterinary Association. Of the 30% of veterinarians registered in New Zealand who hail from overseas, around one-third of the group came from the United Kingdom, 19% from Australia and about 11% from the U.S.

With its large agriculture sector, New Zealand also appears to have a disproportionate need for food animal veterinarians. According to the latest Veterinary Council of New Zealand numbers, 14.9% of the country's practitioners identified as working in "beef cattle," "dairy," or "large animal practice," with 19% in mixed practice and 7.1% in equine practice.

By comparison, in the U.S., just 5.9% of veterinarians identify exclusively or predominately as food animal practitioners, while 2.7% identify as mixed animal and 4.2% as exclusively or predominately equine, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association 2019 membership report. (About 22% of members do not specify a practice sector in the report.

New Zealand has more dairy cattle and sheep than people, with around 6.6 million and 27.5 million of those animals, respectively, counted in a 2017 agricultural census. That compares with the country's human population of about 5.1 million.

"Vet recruitment is certainly a constant challenge, and farm vet recruitment has been challenging for over a decade," Hosking of Franklin Vets said. "Farm veterinary work continues to be less appealing to the average graduate, and like [in] many professions, such as [medical] doctors, there has historically been less interest from vets to live in rural parts of the country."

Government offers $36,000 to lure veterinarians to farms

In an attempt to address that problem, the New Zealand government's Ministry for Primary Industries has since 2016 offered graduates from Massey University's veterinary school NZ$55,000 (US$36,000) to work in rural areas via its so-called Voluntary Bonding Scheme. The money is paid over a five-year period and either pays off the student's loan, or, if they don't have one, goes straight into their bank account. 

"The Ministry for Primary Industries is aware there is a shortage of skilled and experienced workers across several of our primary sectors, including vets, and we’re working hard with the primary sector to fill these roles," ministry spokesman Brad Young told VIN News.

Young said the ministry had just received the applications for 2020's Voluntary Bonding scheme. This year, he said, it is providing funding for 33 graduates, up from 32 last year. Young said there are no plans to expand the subsidy, including to international veterinary graduates. "Last year, we commissioned an independent review of the scheme, which found that it’s meeting its objective to help address rural veterinary staff shortages," he said.

Precisely why New Zealand typically relies on such a high proportion of foreign veterinarians is a tough question to answer, the Veterinary Council's McLachlan said. He cites a range of possible reasons, including a strong desire for young graduates in Australia and New Zealand to travel overseas; difficulty recruiting food veterinarians to remote areas; and the country's relatively liberal immigration policies. "A lot of vets come here from overseas for experience with production animals particularly, which, pre-COVID, was a blessing for us," he said. "... I think there are people that still want to come across for that."

Lowe, the veterinarian who foresees a workforce crisis, supports any government move to grant border exemptions to foreign veterinarians, although he said it's not a long-term solution. "Foreign veterinarians may come here for two or three years and then they go again," he said. "The question is: Are you really creating a sustainable veterinary workforce, or are you just plugging the gap by essentially chucking more labor units at it?"

For her part, Beattie at the NZVA said she's all too aware that attracting more veterinarians to New Zealand from overseas could worsen labor shortages in those veterinarians' countries of origin. She also believes that the profession needs to do more to address mental health. At the same time, Beattie said she's conscious that a shortfall in New Zealand caused by the border closure could push overstretched local practitioners to the limit, causing a downward spiral of attrition.

"The thing that landed really strongly in our survey about the border closure is that our members were actually more worried in the short-term about veterinary welfare than anything else," Beattie said. "Everyone's got a breaking point, right? We don't want to break anybody."

Correction: The original version of this story mistakenly described Auckland as the capital of New Zealand. Auckland is the most populous city in the country but the capital is Wellington.

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