This week, at the National Food Animal Veterinary Institute meeting on strengthening the rural veterinary infrastructure, members of the American Association of Bovine Practitioners (AABP) discussed AABP’s efforts to address rural practice issues.

Speaking to an invitation-only crowd of more than 40 in Kansas City, Mo., David Welch, VMD, MBA, leader of AABP’s Veterinary Practice Sustainability Committee, and Russ Daly, DVM, South Dakota State University and a member of committee examining rural practice sustainability, explained how the committee addressing these issues came about and where they are headed.

“In late 1990s rural practitioners spoke out on the difficulties of hiring associates,” Daly said. “In 2004, the Food Supply Veterinary Medicine Coalition study projected veterinary shortages in private practice, government and academia. At the time, AABP and others worked under the premise of a food-supply veterinary shortage.”

Daly says as a result, efforts to increase enrollment of veterinary students interested in food supply veterinary medicine were successful.

However, that didn’t seem to solve the problem. Daly says in the late 2000s, AABP student members indicated they were having trouble finding jobs in food supply veterinary medicine – jobs that would allow them to pay off their veterinary school debt and support them as well as a family, practice buy-in, etc.

“We realize there were and are unmet needs in some areas of country that still exist, and the media messages were still touting widespread shortages of veterinarians,” Daly said. In addition, 2012 starting salaries for veterinarians had fallen from 2011 levels.

AABP: “There is no shortage”

In response, AABP formed an ad hoc committee on rural veterinary practice (RVP) in the fall of 2010 which was made up of private rural practitioners as well as academia and industry veterinarians who represented all regions in the U.S. The charge was to look into the issues for the future of rural veterinary practice, develop recommendations and action items, and take that to the AABP board of directors.

In May 20, 2011, the committee released a statement saying, “It is the opinion of the RVP that there is not currently a shortage of veterinarians for rural food supply veterinary private practice.” The committee did acknowledge, however, that there still remained areas that were underserved.

The committee focused on looking both at the supply side (veterinarians) and the demand side (clients). Some of the issues on the supply side, Daly said, are the efforts are fragmented between veterinary organizations, education debt is excessive, and use of paraprofessional can be seen as a “cure” or a “curse”.

On the demand side, there is still very little knowledge about the needs in different geographical and market areas, the veterinary “value proposition” is often not appreciated, and non-traditional business and contractual relationships may need to be developed.

The three initiatives the committee developed to move forward on include life cycle (financial planning for veterinarians, students and even pre-veterinary students); business management (human resources, employee management, legal structures); and issue-based help (developing a clearinghouse available for practitioners, tools, outside business consultation, etc.).

Permanent committee formed

Because of the gravity of the issue, the ad hoc RVP committee became Veterinary Practice Sustainability committee in 2011, hiring Welch to lead its efforts to develop initiatives to address these issues.

One of the first things the committee did was an in-depth survey of AABP members on veterinary practice sustainability. Welch said the objectives were to quantify the present economic situation in which the bovine veterinarians finds him/herself; identify non-traditional approaches to bovine practice; and define present business and human resources practices being used in veterinary businesses.

The survey covered topics such as business strategies and practices, client and practice characterization, owner and associate veterinarians’ perspectives; personnel and benefits; associate veterinarian training and skill expectation; duties of technicians; employee retention; public relations and promotions; sustainability and practice finances.

Welch noted that less than 4% of owners and 2.3% of associates said the practice had written mentoring manuals. Forty-four percent of owners reported doing regular performance evaluations, while only 29% of associates reported they receive regular performance evaluations.

CE opportunities are coming

Many practitioners would like to enhance their business management skills, but it can be hard to find that information that can really help the rural practice. Welch said the September 2013 American Association of Bovine Practitioners conference in Milwuakee will offer preconference seminars on veterinary practice management, and other materials will be available to AABP members.

Welch said areas of future examination will include focusing on small (<4 practitioner) veterinary practices, continuing to find unique, non-traditional business plans for practices and continuing to explore roles for technicians and veterinary medical services.