July 15, 2003


 AVMA, federal veterinarians meet in Washington, D.C.

Agriculture Department speaks of shortage of veterinarians in federal agencies



The demand for veterinary expertise in the federal government has never been greater, according to a panel of top federally employed veterinarians. The AVMA President's Veterinary Roundtable Luncheon on May 12 brought many of the government's best and brightest veterinarians together in Washington, D.C., with AVMA President Joe M. Howell and President-Elect Jack O. Walther to discuss veterinary issues and priorities within the federal government.

"It is always a privilege to sit in a room like this with as many experts as we have here today, and it is an excellent opportunity for the AVMA to discuss ways that we can address the new and emerging issues facing our profession," Dr. Howell said.

The luncheon attendees said that there is an expanding awareness among nonveterinarians in key government positions that veterinarians must be involved at every level of public health. The next hurdle for the veterinary profession, they said, is to fill the many vacancies for veterinarians in the federal government.

The National Association of Federal Veterinarians reported that there are approximately 2,600 veterinarians in federal service. With a large number of federally employed veterinarians approaching retirement, the need for veterinarians will grow exponentially in the next several years. In fact, a recent Department of Agriculture Skills Gap Analysis predicts a shortage of 584 veterinary medical officers at the USDA by 2007.

Officials from USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service reported during the luncheon that the shortage of veterinarians at APHIS became even more acute recently as the agency responded to outbreaks of avian influenza and exotic Newcastle disease. While both diseases are under control, APHIS initially struggled to recruit veterinarians who could travel to affected areas of the country to work with local officials to battle the diseases.

These and other diseases have the potential to threaten the nation's health, economy, and food supply and, consequently, USDA officials emphasized the need at APHIS for additional resources and trained veterinarians who can respond to emergency situations quickly and effectively. Moreover, the need for permanent staff at APHIS is growing, since the agency recently lost 2,600 workers who were moved to the Department of Homeland Security.

Veterinarians at the luncheon agreed that intense recruiting is necessary to obtain the best and brightest veterinarians to serve in the nation's federal agencies. There are numerous openings in the USDA and the Department of Health and Human Services, and an ongoing need for veterinarians in the Department of Defense. While recruiting recently graduated students is a key piece to this puzzle, experienced veterinarians must also step up to fill the needs in the federal government.

To attract experienced veterinarians to federal government service, Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu has introduced S. 953, legislation that would extend specialty pay to board-certified federal health science employees. Agencies must have the resources to encourage federal veterinarians to earn board certification and be competitive with private practices to attract board-certified veterinarians to provide expertise for homeland security, food safety, and public health issues.

Another tool that would help recruit more veterinarians for federal government employment, the National Veterinary Medical Service Act (H.R. 1367), would provide student loan repayment to veterinarians who agree to work in areas that the Secretary of Agriculture designates as underserved. These underserved areas can include the federal government as well as rural agricultural areas, inner cities, population groups, and areas of veterinary practice where there is a true need for more veterinarians.

To address the growing demand for veterinarians in a wide range of areas, including public health, biomedical research, ecosystem health, and biodefense, the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges is preparing a white paper that will identify the needs of the public. This will help veterinary colleges develop the training and resources needed to equip veterinary students with the required skills.

Emphasis on business, organizational leadership, and communication skills in veterinary curricula will enhance the success of graduates in government programs as well as private practice. Luncheon participants suggested that AVMA advisers who visit with veterinary students should educate students about career alternatives and open their eyes to the employment possibilities within the federal government.

Luncheon participants encouraged the AVMA president to work with the federal government to increase the visibility of veterinarians working in public health areas.

USDA representatives also suggested that the AVMA assume an active role in promoting public health careers among its members by hosting a daylong seminar beginning this year at the AVMA Annual Convention so that veterinarians can learn about opportunities that are available outside of clinical practice. (Sessions on opportunities in laboratory animal medicine and nontraditional careers for veterinarians are being offered during the convention, July 19-23, in Denver.)

Since 9/11, there has been a tremendous shift of manpower to the task of homeland security. Veterinarians in government are working to determine the effects that a biologic attack would have on agriculture and human health. Unfortunately, as many veterinarians in federal service see it, the emphasis on government preparedness for agroterrorism is not as substantial as the emphasis on human health.

The current situation with severe acute respiratory syndrome demonstrates that the nation must be prepared for any situation. Preparation involves advanced planning, available resources, and trained first responders. On many fronts, veterinarians act as first responders, quickly identifying and isolating infected individuals to prevent the spread of disease.

"The great value of the roundtable is the opportunity for leaders of the AVMA to sit with leaders in various departments in Washington, D.C., and to find new ways for veterinarians to improve our government and improve our public health," Dr. Walther said.