Time to Get Serious about Addressing the Veterinarian Shortage
A veterinary shortage looms. What is the profession going to do about it?
When supply meets demand, all is good. But sometimes demand exceeds supply. If you’re talking about outdoor grills, that’s inconvenient. But for essential services, such as healthcare, it’s potentially catastrophic.
In the case of veterinary medicine, the demand for better animal health, and skillful, caring healthcare providers, has never been greater. But researchers worry that the supply of veterinary doctors and support staff can’t keep pace with that demand.
“The risk of inaction is simply too high for the future of our profession and the people in it,” says Jennifer Welser, DVM, DACVO, chief medical officer, Mars Veterinary Health, which has sponsored three studies on the veterinary workforce since 2021. The studies – on DVMs, specialists and nurses/technicians – were conducted by James Lloyd, DVM, PhD, Animal Health Economics, LLC.
In one of those studies, Dr. Lloyd cites a 2018 national study by the American Veterinary Medical Association which found veterinarians were feeling so overworked that it would take an estimated 6,291 additional full-time-equivalent (FTE) veterinarians to accommodate their desire to work fewer hours. In effect, this amounted to a shortage of around 6% of U.S. veterinarians at the time. Other studies offered mixed results, but all pointed in the same direction – veterinary professionals were in scarce supply in 2018 and 2019. And the picture doesn’t look any brighter today.
Assuming the demand for pet healthcare services continues to increase, Dr. Lloyd concluded that close to 22,909 additional companion-animal veterinarians will be needed by 2030. Add to that the number of veterinarians likely needed to replace all the companion-animal veterinarians who by 2030 will have left the workforce due to retirement – a number he estimated to be 18,050. All told, 40,959 veterinarians would need to enter companion animal practice over the next 10 years to accommodate demand.
But considering current enrollments at U.S. and offshore veterinary colleges, the U.S. could fall short nearly 15,000 companion-animal veterinarians by 2030, representing an overall shortfall of approximately 16%.
Are bigger classes the answer?
Statistics such as these led 24 industry leaders in January to write the American Veterinary Medical Association urging the AVMA to acknowledge the problem and encourage an increase in veterinary college class sizes, and to support other initiatives to address the workforce crisis.
“We see the effects of a workforce crisis every day, including delayed and denied care, suffering pets, [and] veterinarians and their teams struggling emotionally, mentally and physically,” wrote the signees, which included veterinary professionals from WellHaven Pet Health, Modern Animal, Royal Canin, Ethos Veterinary Health, Banfield Pet Hospital, VCA-Animal Hospital, Heart + Paw, Mars Veterinary Health, Animal Policy Group and others. “It’s clear to us that the shortage is real and growing.
“Recognizing that adding seats, classes, new schools and additional class cohorts is no easy task, we are offering our assistance. We are eager to partner in providing internships, residencies, clinical rotations, summer job opportunities, visiting faculty, mentors and scholarships in support of training additional future veterinarians.
“We encourage you to acknowledge the workforce shortage [and] support additional programs, increased class sizes and the addition of new classes to existing programs.”
The problem isn’t lack of interest in the veterinary profession on the part of young people, says Eleanor Green, DVM, DACVIM, DABVP, senior advisor and consultant with Animal Policy Group. The profession offers many opportunities for young DVMs in companion animal care, academia, biomedical engineering, One Health, industry and more. That’s why increasing the number of slots in veterinary schools is absolutely essential, she says.
“But even if every school were to increase class size, those students wouldn’t graduate for at least six years. Veterinary schools are taking a continual look at their educational processes and are implementing innovative and modern teaching techniques, but we can always do more.”
Generational dynamics may be contributing to the problem, says Dr. Green. Young people have watched the older generation devote themselves to their practices to the point of losing out on their family lives. “Their badge of honor has been how hard they work. As an equine veterinarian, I know that some want to be or felt they had to be the person their clients had to see, and clients went along. That has tethered them to their work, with adverse consequences to their life balance. Some equine veterinarians have found creative solutions by making those in the practice essentially interchangeable, and client acceptance has been high.”
This uncommon work ethic has even led some veterinarians to encourage young people to avoid entering the profession, she says. “It is astounding that some veterinarians discourage aspiring young people, especially when most are still in practice and say they would choose veterinary medicine again. That’s disappointing, because the profession is as wonderful today as it always has been; in fact, it is better in so many ways. But some younger people are saying, ‘Veterinary medicine may be a great career, but I’m not sure I want to give up my other interests and compromise my family to be a successful veterinarian.’”
Another sticking point: Some more senior veterinarians may turn away graduates who are looking for a work/life balance, fearing they will negatively affect the productivity and profitability as well as the traditional culture of the practice, says Dr. Green. Graduates entering the profession have much to contribute, and if they are able to achieve balance in their lives, they will be more likely to remain in practice productively and with a sense of wellness and fulfillment for many years. And by allowing them to do so, practice owners may very likely face fewer problems recruiting and retaining young doctors.
A sustainable future
Robert Lester, DVM, co-founder and chief medical officer for WellHaven Pet Health, believes the workforce deficit will only get worse without action. Some market research and investment firms predict the demand for pet care could triple in the years ahead, “yet we see veterinary schools turning away applicants every day.” He believes the AVMA Council on Education can be more proactive working with veterinary schools to increase class sizes by, for example, accommodating a second cohort of students, which would double the number of graduates while leveraging the existing academic infrastructure.
Even if such actions were to be undertaken, increasing the number of graduating DVMs is a long-term solution, he says. In the meantime, veterinary doctors can stretch the capacity of their practices by delegating more responsibilities to their support staff, i.e., nurses and technicians. Doing so won’t be easy. “It’s a deeply embedded cultural issue. While other healthcare professionals have since embraced team healthcare delivery, we have lagged behind. It’s starting to change, but there’s more work to do.”
Mars Veterinary Health’s Dr. Welser agrees that to create a sustainable future for the veterinary profession, addressing the insufficient number of new graduates is a must. “More new veterinary professionals entering the profession will alleviate known stressors, such as the growing demand for pet healthcare services and impending baby boomer retirements. [Their presence] will create more bandwidth across the industry for increased work/life balance and allow future workforces to tackle other urgent issues within our profession.”
But she identifies three other factors that the profession must address in order to meet projected workforce shortages:
- Lack of diversity. “Currently, the veterinary profession is not representative of society. We must double down on investments in equity, inclusion, and diversity efforts industrywide to not only help solve the veterinary staffing shortage, but also ensure veterinary practitioners better reflect the communities they serve and are able to provide pets and their owners more culturally competent care.”
- Inherent health and wellbeing challenges. “As most of us know, veterinary professionals are at an increased risk of mental health challenges, with an alarming one in six considering suicide,” she says. “To make a better world for pets, we first need to make a better world for the people who care for them – and that starts with awareness and education, better pay and benefits, and actionable tools and resources to help veterinary professionals manage the sometimes-harsh realities of our passion-filled work.”
- Overwhelming rates of student debt. “It’s no secret that veterinary graduates enter practice with an estimated (and staggering) average of $150,000 in student loans, with increasing numbers carrying debt loads up to $400,000. It’s imperative that we remove financial barriers to those seeking a career in veterinary medicine and provide student debt relief support to those already in school or practice.”
Progress is being made – if slowly – in expanding the number of graduating veterinary doctors, says George Melillo, VMD, co-founder and chief veterinary officer for Heart + Paw. And it must continue. He points to Long Island University in New York, which welcomed its first students into its veterinary college in 2020, and Rowan University in New Jersey, which plans to open its School of Veterinary Medicine in 2025.
“But we also have to think about novel ways to deliver veterinary care,” he says. “We don’t have to use the models that worked decades ago, when practices were open seven days a week until 9 at night. We need new technology, new ways of thinking, and new platforms to provide opportunities for doctors to meet their career goals while balancing their clients’ needs and their own work/life balance. We want to get to a place where doctors are happy, healthy and successful, and that’s not the same as simply wanting to work fewer hours. Innovation is always a good thing.”
Dr. Melillo believes that if young graduates display confidence in their skill sets when they enter the workforce, they can help offset the impact of FTE shortages. And veterinary schools can help by showing the same regard for the general practitioner role as they do for the specialist role, because that’s the role most graduates will assume.
What’s more, he believes young doctors could enter the workforce better prepared to handle the sometimes-exhausting work of continually dealing with the public. “It calls for emotional intelligence and an understanding of different styles of communication.
“But I am optimistic. I think there has never been a better time to be a veterinarian than today, with all the options available. I hope we get to the point where professionals are encouraging their children to follow in their footsteps.”
Solving the workforce issue is critical, says Dr. Green. “What are the negative consequences of the growing demand for pet healthcare services we can’t fill? I’m also concerned about our profession’s unwillingness or inability to adopt new technologies to help us serve more patients.
“Clients don’t want veterinarians; they want healthy animals. We believe strongly we are the best solution for the good healthcare that clients seek. But if they find they can’t get that from those of us in veterinary medicine, they will they seek solutions somewhere else.”
The support team: Ready to help
Even if enrollment in veterinary medical schools were to grow in the next 10 years, larger numbers of graduating DVMs by themselves won’t be able to provide enough veterinary services to all those who need it, says James Lloyd, DVM, PhD, Animal Health Economics, LLC., in his August 2021 study on pet healthcare in the United States. But help is available from those in supporting roles, particularly, veterinary nurses and technicians.
The talent pool is deep, for several reasons:
- Barriers to entry for nurses and technicians are much lower than those for DVM programs, and educational turnaround time is much quicker.
- Formal educational capacity is greater. Over 200 accredited veterinary nurse/technician programs exist in the U.S. compared to just 33 DVM programs.
- There is plenty of unused capacity among practicing nurses and technicians. “By some estimates, veterinary practices on average use only about 30% of the skills and competencies for which credentialed veterinary nurses/technicians have been educated,” says Dr. Lloyd.
Expanding the practice team can be an emotional and financial boost for the practice, adds Dr. Lloyd. Research results from 2018 indicate that, on average, the positive contribution to practice productivity/revenue of just one additional veterinary nurse/technician is approximately 18.3%.
Top of the license
“Veterinary technicians and nurses are central, and doctors value them,” says Eleanor Green, DVM, DACVIM, DABVP, senior advisor and consultant with Animal Policy Group. “But we don’t always utilize them to the top of their license.” For example, technicians
and nurses can be trained to play a bigger role in telehealth, perhaps by providing triage services. They already demonstrate decision-making skills when answering pet owners’ spontaneous questions on the phone, she adds.
“Veterinary teams, pets, and clients all benefit when credentialed veterinary technicians are enabled to practice at the top of their license,” says Jennifer Welser, DVM, DACVO, chief medical officer, Mars Veterinary Health. Elevating CVTs enables clinics to operate more efficiently and reduces pressure on other members of the hospital team.
“Additionally, I believe a new, mid-level veterinary professional should be explored to help us address the veterinary workforce challenge. With well-developed curricula and skill building, this role could seamlessly integrate into veterinary practices and increase overall clinic productivity. Skills like progressive case management and care coordination are less commonly represented in veterinary practice today, and with a new band of mid-level professionals who are experts in the area, the reach of practicing veterinarians could be significantly compounded.”
Photo credit: istockphoto.com/Thomas Barwick