Misallocation of rural vets, not shortage

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Recently the American Association of Bovine Practitioners released a report from its Rural Veterinary Practices (RVP) committee about the perceived shortage of food animal veterinarians. What the committee found was not a lack of food-animal veterinarians, but rather a shortage of veterinarians to practice in rural areas. This distinction is critical for moving forward as states consider how to address the problem through a variety of ways. (see the full report here).

Christine B. Navarre, DVM, MS, DACVIM, President, American Association of Bovine Practitioners, says, “There are areas under served by veterinarians, but not a ‘shortage’ of veterinarians to fill those positions. Many of these areas simply cannot sustain a viable large-animal veterinary business. Adding more veterinarians will not fix the problem.

“The committee is extremely concerned that the perception by veterinary schools and the public that there continues to be a shortage (meaning too few veterinarians) of rural practitioners is leading to increased class sizes at veterinary schools and the creation of new veterinary schools,” Navarre adds. “Continuing to increase the number of veterinarians interested in serving rural areas will not solve this problem. It might create an 'over supply' of food-supply veterinarians and lead to widespread unemployment or underemployment of food-supply private practitioners and will have a significant detrimental effect on salaries for all veterinarians.”

Another issue is that students graduating with a high veterinary school debt load are often unable to afford practicing in a rural area that doesn’t pay them enough . A 2010 AVMA study showed that the average debt load of veterinary students was over $133,000, and that over 89.9% of veterinary students had debt. Thirty-six percent had debt over $150,000, and more than 15% had debt over $200,000.”

There are programs that have been put in place such as the Veterinary Services Investment Act (VSIA) and the USDA Veterinary Medical Loan Repayment Program (VMLRP), but these can’t solve the whole problem. “While the VSIA and VMLRP are necessary stop gap measures, we want to try to make sure these investments morph into long term sustainability of practices,” Navarre says. “If we don’t make rural practice economically viable we won’t keep veterinary services in these areas.”

AABP’s RVP committee is currently working on developing tools for AABP members to use for addressing the challenges of serving the beef and dairy industries and protecting public health in a changing environment. “We are just getting started on how we will go forward looking at sustainable business models,” Navarre says. “Looking at practices that are already successful is one idea. Another is to look at how other professions are dealing with this same problem.”

Listen to an AgriTalk interview with AABP’s Executive Vice President, Dr. M. Gatz Riddell, on this issue of veterinarians in rural practice and economics here.  

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NY  |  June, 18, 2011 at 02:21 PM

I left a well-paying job at 36 years old and have accumulated massive amounts of debt to enter veterinary school because of the well-publicized "shortage" of rural food animal veterinarians. And now I am being told that my services will not be needed after I graduate? Thanks a lot!

Walter Hylton    
VA  |  June, 18, 2011 at 02:54 PM

Don't worry. There will always be opportunities for a satisfying and rewarding career in food animal practice for energetic and enthusiastic young veterinarians who know their stuff and keep learning. Locate in an area with lots of farms nearby, and where producers are used to utilizing veterinary services that improve their bottom line.

Nicole Ferguson    
Lexington, GA  |  June, 18, 2011 at 02:43 PM

I agree wholeheartedly with these findings. I opened an initial large animal practice in my area because of the "need" for one. 6 months and 3 part-time relief jobs later, I opened a small animal part which is sustaining the large animal portion. There is a need when there is an emergency but most areas cannot sustain a solely large animal practice. I have completed a large animal medicine residency and have tried for 3 years to work with the local large animal veterinarians but they do not refer any cases to me. There is not a need in my opinion for more veterinarians in general to be put out by the veterinary schools. The same could be said for the overabundance of veterinarians (at least large animal internists) completing residency programs, the majority of which end up doing PhDs as there are no job opportunities for them. Unemployment or underemployment will ensue if the profession continues on this path.

illinois  |  June, 18, 2011 at 07:08 PM

Is there really a need? Do producers really want us, and if so, is it only for emergencies? Emergencies only will not sustain a food animal practice. Medications and advice are available today for producers from many sources, including veterinary consultants, so why bother with the local vet except in an emergency. This is not just an issue for the veterinary profession, but also one that the food animal industry also needs to seriously get involved with in finding solutions.

Dr. Mauck    
Sullivan IL  |  June, 19, 2011 at 01:43 AM

I graduated from veterinary school in 1986 intending to solely practice food animal medicine. So, what am I now? A 100% small animal practitioner. Why? Because even though I live in a rural area of downstate Illinois, there are less and less food animals around. The food animal industry has become so concentrated that unless you are located in one of those areas of concentration, you can forget about full-time food animal practice. By the way, I'm happy doing small animal now, although I'm not what you'd call a 'pet person.' We practice excellent medicine and it's nice not pulling calves when it's zero out or putting a uterus back in a cow when it's 95! My brother-in-law also is also a DVM with a master's in swine management and practiced exclusively with hogs for over ten years. The ups and downs of that economy plus the constant travel drove him out of that field to- you guessed it- 100% small animal medicine also. My son just graduated from U of I with his DVM last month. Like 90% of his class, he's headed to small animal practice. There were maybe ten people in his class of 120 that had any interest in large animal practice. There was a not insignificant cohort of his class that were suburban women who think working with cows and pigs is yucky. Some were downright hostile to large animal practice. I think the veterinary schools need to do a better job of bringing in rural students in general and men in particular (75-80% of all veterinary students are female.)

Cort Mohr D.V.M.    
McCook, Nebraska  |  June, 20, 2011 at 10:09 AM

FINALLY, a report that gets close to the observations I've made for the last 15 years. The acedemics have been blind to the change in the industry and focus on all their "specialties". I saw the travel the great "consultants" had to undertake to maintain their buissness and their image. I lost clients because I was'nt a specialist , even thought they gave the same advise after I looked at another species on the way to their operation.(HOW COULD I POSSIBLY KNOW AS MUCH A CONSULTANT?) Common sense and flexiblity have been the foundation of the veterinary profession. Focusing on providing services for rural COMMUNITIES, not ag. production units is what is needed. Ag. production units look at our profession as a cost of production that needs to be minimized. What needs to accomplished is the developement of a business model that supports a service that meets a communty's need. ( A true mixed animal practice i.e. zoonotic as well as individual species needs)

B.R. Cato    
blytheville,ar  |  June, 20, 2011 at 11:36 AM

i agree with Dr. Navarre. We are in a rural area with 3 or 4 other solo practices in a 30 mile radius. As far as I can tell I'm the only one doing much large animal work. There is plenty of work out there but I've found it difficult to locate anyone willing to work in a mixed practice with an increasing emphasis on large animal endeavors. Most of our clients seem to be receptive to herd- health and consultation recommendations but I still see a lot of emergencies. My concern is that much of what has traditionally been handled by veterinarians will be lost to others with less training if we do not confront the need for practitioners willing to fill this niche.

Bruce Speich    
Milnor ND  |  June, 20, 2011 at 08:39 PM

I am a farmer and rancher, We do most everything our selves treating bloats to prolaspes, but we have the vet pg, semen test, c-sections, but we do buy 95% of our supplies from our vet who is located 40 miles from our place. our vet gives a 10% discount if paid on time, so they very competative with Stockmens Supply