Mitigating Pain Points for the Shortage of Equine Associate Positions
Why your equine practice customers might be struggling to fill associate positions, and how industry organizations like the AAEP are working to address the issues that created the shortage.
The demand for veterinary services has never been higher – it’s finding enough veterinarians to meet the demand that’s been the issue.
That includes the equine sector. Just like in the companion animal sector, equine practice owners are struggling to fill associate positions, and many openings go unfilled for years, said Amy L. Grice VMD, MBA. Grice practiced as an equine ambulatory veterinarian for 25 years. She was the managing partner of Rhinebeck Equine LLP, a large referral practice. She currently serves on the board of the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP).
Case in point: In May 2021, there were over 450 job postings on the AAEP Career Center website. Grice cited industry statistics that well under 2% of new graduates enter equine practice each year, with just 1.5% in 2018, 1.0% in 2019, and 1.4% in 2020. With about 4,000 graduates each year, that translates to less than 50 newly minted veterinarians entering the field each year. “The AVMA estimates that there are about 60 equine veterinarians retiring each year, a figure they expect to grow 3% per year,” Grice said. “When examining AAEP members, 44% are more than 50 years old, and 27% are more than 60 years of age! In addition, about half of the new graduates that start their careers as equine practitioners are not still working with horses by the fifth year after their graduation.”
In the following interview with Veterinary Advantage, Grice provided more insights into the shortage, and what the industry is doing to address the issue.
Veterinary Advantage: What are the reasons behind the shortage of equine practitioners?
Grice: In a survey I conducted in May 2019, respondents answered questions about leaving or considering leaving equine practice. In the survey, 127 (19.7%) of the total 645 respondents had already left or had definitely decided to leave equine practice, and another 113 (17.5%) were considering leaving the profession. When asked to choose the most important factor in their decision to leave or consider leaving equine practice, the lifestyle and number of work hours required was the most frequently chosen response (27.5%), followed by emergency on-call duty (17.9%) and mental health and stress (11.6%). Low salaries and compensation (10.0%) garnered a fourth place in importance, followed by the culture of my practice (9.8%).
The shorter work weeks, limited or no emergency duty, and robust compensation of small animal practices are increasingly attractive to young women after they start families, as the traditional business model of equine practices does not have the flexibility they need.
The physical demands of equine practice and prevalence of injuries are also on the minds of young practitioners.
High educational debt is a source of stress as well, especially with the low starting salaries in equine practice. The average starting salary for a new graduate in equine practice is about half that in companion animal practice.
The demands of providing emergency service as an equine veterinarian can be exhausting and stressful. Clients are increasingly demanding, and young veterinarians find themselves tapped out, burned out, and anxious or depressed.
The culture of many equine practices discourages new graduates, as they feel they don’t belong if they cannot or do not want to practice in a traditional way that encourages work as the primary focus of life. Belonging to a tribe is a human need. Not belonging feels like failure.
Veterinary Advantage: What do future generations want out of the profession that may differ from previous generations?
Grice: Many equine veterinarians in their first decade or so of equine practice, that are in the equine sector to stay, have started their own practices, so they can practice with new paradigms and create a culture that suits their lives. They are creating successful models that will be attractive to future generations. Collaboration with other practices to share emergency on-call duties, networking to build a supportive tribe, and creation of strong boundaries to allow for time off are a few of the ways they are reshaping equine practice. Three- and four-day work weeks, building practice rather than personal goodwill, and upholding high ethical standards are other steps they are taking. Another necessary element is fee structures that will support higher compensation.
Future equine veterinarians want better work-life balance, more control over their time, better compensation, less emergency duty responsibility, and more career flexibility.
Veterinary Advantage: What are some things the industry is doing to respond to this trend?
Grice: The AAEP’s most recent strategic plan has attraction and retention of equine veterinarians as one of its pillars. A task force has been working on identifying the pain points in equine practice and exploring ways to mitigate them. In addition, the AAEP Wellness Committee has been very active in building community, creating resources, and supporting members. The AVMA has a well-developed wellness initiative as well. Many equine industry partners have also joined the conversation about the need for change, and are actively promoting education about new paradigms.
1 Photo credit: istockphoto.com/urbancow