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.