The myth of the veterinary shortage

The veterinary world has been abuzz for the past few years with the question, “Do we need more veterinarians?” For as long as I can remember I’ve been told that there is a shortage of veterinarians in the US. I’ve also been told that there is, more specifically, a shortage of rural large animal veterinarians. When I step back to consider the sources of these comments over the years I have to ask myself, where were they getting this information?

The people who told me about the “shortage” were people like my parents, family friends, people in schools and universities. These were not people who have any real connection the the veterinary world, veterinary demographics and the veterinary economy in general. I don’t blame my parents, or non-veterinary lay people for repeating things they had heard or been told by supposed authorities on the subject. I do place some blame on the universities, who stand to benefit by turning out more and more veterinarians each year.

Before I continue, if you aren’t aware of the current situation or want to learn more, a recent article on the subject by the New York Times can be found here.

Basically, for the past 5-10 years there has been a purported “shortage” of veterinarians. While it seems to be true that there is a need for rural large animal veterinarians on maps showing under-served areas, what people don’t seem to realize is that these areas are not exactly crying out for veterinarians. Even in rural communities where there is a demand, you have to consider the implications of trying to transplant veterinarians into these locations. The current solution to this problem is to increase veterinary school class sizes to produce more veterinarians, in hopes that they will fill the gaps in these under-served communities.

Most fourth year veterinary students are looking to enter an established practice where they can receive invaluable mentorship for at least their first year out in practice. Some students even choose to go on to complete internships to guarantee mentorship and to set them up for successful practice. These internships come at a drastic pay cut, limiting them to 20 to 25,000 their first year in practice. The majority of veterinary students are also leaving school with well over 100k in student loans and debt. Limiting themselves to an internship’s salary or an average starting salary of $60,000 (depending on your sources) can make their lives difficult and their options limited for the future.

I’m getting sidetracked. The argument for increased demand for veterinarians, especially rural large animal veterinarians, is not going to be corrected by increasing veterinary school class sizes. If almost all veterinary students are leaving school looking for mentorship first and foremost, even at the cost of an internship, where is the incentive for them to move to a rural location that currently has no veterinarians in practice?

Sure, the community may need these students. But the students are not going to be attracted to moving to a place where they will be on their own with no mentors to speak of. They are also not going to be lured by the need for more loans to start up their own practice. How are these students supposed to afford, or even be approved for a loan, to start their own practice from scratch when they are coming out of school with hundreds of thousands in debt already stacked up?

The universities are not blameless either. They are pandering to the demand from undergraduates and lay people to allow more students into veterinary school. One of the first things I was told when I applied to veterinary school was that in my interview I would be asked “Why do you want to go to veterinary school?” (Indeed, this was the first question they asked me). I was then told that I was absolutely not to say, under penalty of death (just kidding), that I wanted to go to veterinary school because I love animals. Everyone who wants to go to veterinary school loves animals. It doesn’t make you different or special. I don’t remember what my exact answer was to this question, something along the lines of enjoying solving the puzzle of animal medical problems. Loving animals and wanting to heal them is wonderful, but just because you love animals does not mean you should go to veterinary school. Looking back on my veterinary school career, I can say without a doubt that it is not the place for everyone and it is not for the faint of heart. Veterinary medicine is not all puppies and kittens, sunshine and rainbows, it’s often old dogs dying from cancer and poor people who can’t afford appropriate medical care for their pets.

The veterinary universities need to adjust their class sizes based on the economic demand for veterinarians, not based on the demand from students wanting to attend veterinary school. If rural large animal veterinarians are in demand, there need to be incentives for established veterinarians to start practices in these communities. The most important issue is awareness. The myth of the veterinary shortage needs to be disproved, and the truth of the matter needs to be spread. We do not need more veterinarians than we’re already producing, we need knowledgeable people with an eye on economics running our institutions.

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