Readers Respond: Recruiting Rural Veterinarians
Bovine Veterinarian recently asked readers for their thoughts on how to sustain critical numbers of veterinarians serving rural areas. The responses represent a variety of ideas illustrating the complexity of the problem, with no single solution.
Q. What should be done to increase the number of large animal veterinarians to serve in rural areas?
A.The nation’s vet schools have turned a deaf ear to the rural vet shortage, no matter what they say. They are making up for funding shortfalls by increasing tuition and increasing class sizes. The debt that the average student graduates with is nothing short of debilitating in terms of buying into a practice, buying a home, and starting a family. It’s difficult to justify in a metropolitan area, where salaries tend to be higher; it’s damn near impossible in the rural setting. Federal and state programs that aim to forgive some student debt aren’t the answer either, as they only benefit a very few students and on top of that, are poorly funded. The debt these graduates are saddled with has to be relative to the income they receive once out of school. If this is not returned to a manageable, liveable amount, what is the point? Who in their right mind would take on a student debt that they would spend their entire professional career trying to pay off? The trend is towards disappearing rural vets? You bet. In fact, the trend is towards extinction.
A.First, don't keep doing the same thing and expect different results. Change veterinary curriculum drastically. Change some veterinary colleges to graduate only large animal veterinarians. Most to graduate small animal only veterinarians. This would result in limited-license veterinarians. This would save the taxpayers a lot of money. If a veterinarian wanted to be licensed for pets and cattle, they would have to go back for more schooling and exams. This is where the problem lies. Most rural veterinarians rely on pets to make a living. Good luck to all. Major changes are never easy. Reducing government red tape would make this easier.
A.I graduated from vet school in 2010 and started to work for an older veterinarian in a very rural area. Life has taken me down a different path in the last few years, but I often reflect on my time with him and the conversations that we had regarding the veterinarian shortage. When he first graduated and started practicing in the early 1970s, there were government programs that almost ensured that he got onto people’s farms. He always said that the reason for his successful mixed animal practice was Brucellosis eradication program. This made people have to call him, a veterinarian, and while there he would try and build a relationship with those farmers and show them what value he added to their operations.
Everyday that I worked with him, I saw that in action through their continued loyalty to his practice through services and supplies. He and I would talk often about how those programs led to the success of his practice and how he wished something else like that would come along for today’s veterinarians. I hope that below I can articulate reasons that my older mentor was able to be successful, but today might even struggle in the same area. I told that story to give some background into my answer which is that what we really have to address is: community support of a practice through the purchase of goods and services.
Every area of the country is so different, but it seems sometimes we all struggle with the same things. What if the real problem is not that there are not enough veterinarians, but a shortage of people willing to purchase goods or services from them in a given area. Business management becomes an incredibly crucial part of these rural practices. The debt relief program does help to address that in terms of lowering debt owed so that people can build a business, but what if it turns into a band-aid to cover up the actual wound which is not enough financial support for a practice.
The veterinarian who I worked with also got incredible support from his community over the years when it came to goods purchased: antibiotics, repro supplies, even needles and syringes. That climate is much different today, even in our area, as large “animal health” companies and online retailers are able to offer a lot of those products for sale for a lower price than my mentor was even able to purchase them for. The new antibiotic rules may change this in the future, but I do get concerned that even programs like that will have unintended consequences for our veterinary community when it comes to our role implementing the rules. This is an extremely complex issue, one that will likely take a myriad of forces to arrive at a solution. I hope I at least have some insight from my perspective and experience that could help someone else along the way.
A.It appears schools are chasing more out of state kids to help cover expenses, and for Kansas, that typically means admitting more non rural kids. But is our admissions process correct? Is it targeting kids with grit, potential, emotional intelligence, self-awareness, and passion? How can we make it better? Does GPA matter once it's above 3.0 in terms of successful career in 20 years? Does GRE score accurately predict success of a veterinarian in 20 years? Does a one-time interview predict success in 20 years?
A. Financial aid of some kind to help with schools loans when graduating would be helpful. Advertising this to high school students may help to get more rural community kids to go back home to practice large animal veterinary medicine. Tax breaks to open new clinic or to take over existing one is another idea.
A. I have been a large animal veterinarian in a rural Delaware county and in northeast Iowa for almost 45 years. As consolidation in the livestock industry continues, the number of livestock farms continues to decline. Local practitioners do almost nothing for the big swine integrators. The true family-farm dairies are being pushed out by the multi-thousand cow dairies. As this consolidation continues there are less and less farms for a veterinarian to service. Pretty soon there is not enough business to support a practice and it closes. I think most of the so-called shortage areas are just that. There is just not enough livestock left to support a vet in these areas. A lot of practices that used to be all or mostly large animal are now mostly small animal just to survive.