The Future of Veterinary Medicine
One award-winning veterinary educator is determined to help students find their place in the animal health profession, whether that’s as a clinician or something else.
Dr. Christianne Magee spends a lot of time with the next generation of veterinary professionals, including high school, undergraduate, and graduate students in college. Whenever she has the opportunity, she will ask each student “why” they want to enter the profession.
“I tell my fellow advisors and teachers that I don’t measure my success by the number of students who go on to vet school or who goes on to be a cardiologist or a surgeon,” she said. “It’s the ones who said, ‘I want to be a veterinarian,’ and then I see them in a different career path, but they are so happy in that path and are grateful that we helped them to think about their path. We stopped and asked, ‘Are you sure that this is what you want to do?’”
A few months ago, Dr. Magee ran into a couple of students at a conference who had pivoted away from being practitioners. They told her how excited they were to use their degree to work for a company that helped veterinarians solve problems. “They told me, ‘I get to help vets, I get to solve problems, and I get to use all of my education – but I don’t have to be the veterinarian.’”
Dr. Magee wants the next generation of veterinary professionals to be equipped, educated, and to know what fills their bucket and makes them happy. She was recently honored by the Colorado Veterinary Medical Association as its Veterinarian of the Year. Dr. Magee is described as “the epitome of the educator-scientist” by the CVMA award announcement. In her capacity at CSU, she works with high school, undergraduate, graduate, and DVM students, acting as a mentor and teacher to 400-plus students each year. In addition to her teaching responsibilities, Dr. Magee has been a successful researcher in reproductive physiology and, more recently, in applied education.
When COVID restrictions hit in 2020, Dr. Magee was a college leader in the development of effective online educational strategies, contributing significantly to the success of anatomy students around the world during a difficult time. “Despite the enormous and varied responsibilities she has, she is unfailingly attentive to each student who interacts with her, providing guidance and coaching that helps every student succeed. Her enormous contributions to the development and careers of so many make her a worthy recipient of CVMA’s Veterinarian of the Year Award,” the association said.
Preparing incoming veterinarians for pain points
Dr. Magee said if she could pinpoint one area that has drastically changed over the last decade for students entering the professional ranks, it’s how to navigate social media. Platforms like Facebook and Twitter have very much changed the way in which people interact with a veterinarian. While social media can be an opportunity to share knowledge with clients to improve animal health, it can, unfortunately, turn into a place where disinformation can be damaging. For instance, one recent story that made headlines was of a pet owner in the Northeast who surrendered their critically ill animal to a veterinary clinic. It’s not uncommon for clinics, if the cost of treatment is more than an owner can afford, to allow an owner to surrender their animal with the potential for someone else to pay for those medical care services. Then the previous owner relinquishes all rights to the animal, and the entire process is documented. For the case in Maine, the pet owner went to the media claiming the veterinary practice stole their animal and wouldn’t give it back.
The way that this story unfolded resulted in hate emails and negative media directed at the veterinary clinic. “Even with veterinarians doing everything right, and you’re doing everything you can, when someone goes to the media or posts on social media only one side of the story, it makes it extremely difficult to practice,” Dr. Magee said.
Because of episodes like this and their more frequent occurrence, veterinary students are getting more communications and media training than in previous years. “We didn’t get any media training when I was a student,” she said. “We barely had Facebook.” In the past, veterinarians were told to make sure everything was well-documented, and if that were done, they would be OK. “Now, it almost feels like it doesn’t matter if you did everything right. Even if you documented correctly, it just matters how it’s portrayed.”
Replenishing the ranks
Like most educators, Dr. Magee has seen industry surveys on fewer veterinarians entering the field. That’s especially the case for equine and large animal veterinarians. According to data compiled by the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP), approximately 1.3% of new veterinary graduates enter equine practice directly each year, with another 4.5% pursuing further training in equine internship positions. Within five years, the AAEP said its data shows that 50% of all these veterinarians leave for small animal practice or quit veterinary medicine altogether.
Dr. Magee said the reality is, being an ambulatory veterinarian is incredibly difficult. She has firsthand experience of this, having come into the profession as an equine reproduction specialist. She’s also a horse owner. “Managing expectations can be difficult when there’s more cost and challenging logistics associated with treating an animal that weighs 1,000 pounds,” she said.
In today’s environment, being an equine practitioner is a hard life to live. Some veterinarians who work with racetrack horses or other sport horses often travel a great deal, some from New York to Florida each season. Even if someone practices in one location, they may work from early in the morning to whenever they get home that night and then are potentially on call and getting pulled out of bed at night to treat an emergency.
Dr. Magee expects some of the changes happening in small animal practice, with distinct shifts or defined working hours with better work-life balance, will carry over to equine practitioners and hopefully to those in livestock practice. “From a One Health perspective, I’m more concerned about the fewer number of people entering food animal medicine than I am about equine medicine,” she said. “Access to healthcare in rural areas can be a challenge whether you’re a human or an animal in need of medical care.”
The USDA has created programs to help to draw veterinarians into rural practice and into food animal livestock rural medicine. In August, The National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) announced 20 Veterinary Service Grants Program (VSGP) Awards, eight Education, Extension, and Training (EET) grants and 12 Rural Practice Enhancement (RPE) grants to help mitigate food animal veterinary service shortages in the United States. The goals of the VSGP are to support food animal veterinary medicine through EET funds for accredited schools and organizations and through RPE funds for veterinary clinics that provide services in veterinary shortage situation areas. This program is designed to support education and extension activities that will enable veterinarians, veterinary students, and veterinary technicians to gain specialized food animal skills and practices, NIFA said in a release.
“It’s not only hard to go be the jack of all trades mixed animal practitioner who can care for the dog, the cat, the cow, and the horse,” said Dr. Magee. “They may all be on the same farm, but those farms are all 50 miles apart. That’s a very hard practice to manage.”
Being both a teacher and a research scientist is a lot to balance, but the two roles complement each other, Dr. Magee said. Most of the students in the master’s program she advises are pre-professionals, so they’re looking for opportunities to see how veterinarians interact with animals and vice versa. In her research, Dr. Magee brings students along. They’re almost always willing and interested.
The research provides ample opportunities for mentorship and career conversations. Dr. Magee usually takes blood samples to study hormones and hormone frequency patterns. Sometimes the research requires blood samples every 10 minutes, and sometimes it’s blood samples every hour over a two- or three-day period. “So, what do you do when you’re sitting there for an hour with five students? You talk about professional goals and mentoring,” she said. “They get one-on-one time, usually with me and with other near-peer mentors. They also get research experience, while I get a research team out of it.”
“I don’t have a lot of people in my research lab, but by the time we’re doing those particular experiments, the students have had enough experience with the animals that it works well for everyone. They get a great experience, I’ve got a good team built to get those experiments done, and everybody has a good opportunity.”
Dr. Magee said she loves all the different aspects of her job. “I blend my family into that too.” Her daughter and husband make regular appearances at the research site with cupcakes and pizza for the students and researchers. “[My daughter] loves it because she gets to talk to a bunch of other people. And, I’m demonstrating that I’m balancing work, home, mom, and trying to keep all that afloat.”
Indeed, the next generation of veterinary professionals is more in touch with having a balanced and healthy perspective. They’re not only aware of the impact on people of zoonotic diseases but the impact of an animal’s health on the health and wellness of that family, whether it’s a production animal or a companion animal. They’re also more aware of the environmental impact of animal health. She’s heard them ask questions like should their cat be an indoor cat or an outdoor cat based on whether it could affect the bird and small rodent population in their community.
“I think we’re doing a better job of educating pre-veterinary students who have a more One Health and global perspective,” she said. “Within veterinary education, we’re focusing more on the fact that you can do anything with this degree. You can take this degree and reinvent yourself halfway through if you’d like. We are all taking continuing education each year, which makes moving from one kind of veterinary medicine to another a lot easier. How you choose to practice does not have to be a lifelong decision. So that awareness and growth mindset I think, is going to change the face of the profession in the next 20 years.”
Drilling Down to the ‘Why’
Colorado State University and the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences have a sponsored program intended to bring high school students from under-resourced communities to help address the mentorship gap in animal health. Oftentimes, future veterinarians don’t have access to role models and people who can help guide them into the profession. The high school program is intended to provide those resources and close a mentorship gap that exists.
It’s also intended as a way for participants to explore becoming a veterinarian. When asked why they want to be a veterinarian, most students at any age actually describe wanting to be part of One Health. When talking to young children, she says, “they want to help animals; they love animals. What good human being doesn’t want to do that? With older kids, when you dig into, ‘what does a veterinarian do? What can a veterinarian do?’ Many times, it’s not necessarily that they want to be a veterinarian; it’s that they still want to help, and they want to do good.”
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