March 15, 2010

 

 N.H. considering licensing nonveterinarian livestock care

 
 

Commission examining how to provide veterinary care to underserved areas

 

posted March 1, 2010

 

A task force in New Hampshire is considering licensing nonveterinarians for some livestock care to address a shortage of available food animal veterinarians.

Dr. Brad Taylor, legislative committee chair for the New Hampshire VMA, said the state legislative study commission is considering whether New Hampshire should have a category of licensed food animal technicians, but the details of the proposal have not emerged. The commission is led by state Sen. Jacalyn Cilley, who did not return messages seeking comment.

State legislators passed a 2008 bill that called for studying the creation of an animal care worker classification "to perform the basic care of animals under the direct or indirect supervision of a state licensed veterinarian." The commission members are charged with determining what accreditation would be needed for such workers, what role past experience and employment would play, and what practices they could perform.


Limited access to livestock care in New Hampshire has led to the creation of a commission considering
whether the state should license a new category of food animal technicians.

"In performing this study and making its recommendations, the commission shall review and consider using as basic standards…(the) accreditation policies, guidelines, and procedures of the American Veterinary Medical Association's Committee on Veterinary Technician Education and Activities," the bill states.

The state of New Hampshire does not currently license veterinary technicians, Dr. Taylor said.

The New Hampshire VMA has not expressed an opinion on the proposal. But Dr. Taylor said that, in his opinion, allowing such licensed technicians to work on farms—provided they have the means to contact a veterinarian—could help increase access to animal care.

"We're ranked number three in the nation as far as direct farm-to-consumer food sales, and that's a situation that the state government wishes to help—the local guys with a few sheep that are selling lambs, and people who have some chickens and are selling eggs to their neighbors," Dr. Taylor said.

However, access to veterinary care is, in some areas, "sporadic at best," and the northern third of the state is particularly underserved by food animal veterinarians, he said.

State Veterinarian Steve Crawford, a member of the commission, said access to livestock and poultry veterinary care is limited across his state, primarily because of a shortage of veterinarians.

Most New Hampshire residents who own livestock are not full-time farmers, and the number of farms in the state has grown about 25 percent in the past eight years, Dr. Crawford said. But he has heard from veterinarians in mixed animal practice that a smaller number of owners are calling for services.

 

 

Dr. Crawford is concerned about zoonotic disease risk if producers do not have access to veterinary services. But producers with 10-sheep and 20-cow herds are often reluctant to call veterinarians because they don't think the price of services matches the value of their animals.

Dr. Crawford also expressed concern that, with a lack of veterinarian oversight, it would be more difficult to identify outbreaks of diseases such as H5N1 influenza or foot-and-mouth disease. The efficiency of disaster response depends partly on the number of locations state officials have to manage.

Dr. Crawford believes it is too early to form an opinion on licensing such technicians, but the discussions about access to veterinary care are needed.

"There's got to be a model that works for us," Dr. Crawford said.

Dr. Thomas Candee, who represents New Hampshire in the AVMA House of Delegates, believes veterinarians would be available in rural northern areas of his state if they could make a living there.

He said most people who own large animals and live in the north woods of his state call their veterinarians only during emergencies, and many don't have trailers to haul their cattle or horses to a clinic. The state veterinary practice act requires that veterinarians arrange to provide emergency coverage for clients, and Dr. Candee believes fellow veterinarians realize they would be on call continuously if they opened mixed animal practices in those areas.

State Veterinarian Steve Crawford, a member of the commission, said access to livestock and poultry veterinary care is limited across his state, primarily because of a shortage of veterinarians.

Most New Hampshire residents who own livestock are not full-time farmers, and the number of farms in the state has grown about 25 percent in the past eight years, Dr. Crawford said. But he has heard from veterinarians in mixed animal practice that a smaller number of owners are calling for services.

Dr. Candee also questioned whether someone who, for example, spent two years becoming a veterinary technician and another two years receiving additional large animal medical education would choose to earn more money as an employee of a large-scale livestock veterinary practice rather than to wait on call for emergencies.

Dr. Deborah T. Kochevar, dean of the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, said the college would prefer a viable system for licensed veterinarians with food animal or mixed animal practice interests to deliver care in underserved areas. She is aware of potential obstacles, however, including shortages of food animal practitioners and "the difficulty in matching producers' resources to timely veterinary care through a sustainable business model."

"We're aware of the commission's efforts and are responding to requests for information," Dr. Kochevar said. "Commission members are sincere in trying to find innovative ways to meet the needs of food animal practitioners in New Hampshire."

Dr. Taylor said the food animal technicians would ideally be people with bachelor's degrees from animal science programs and at least one year of hands-on training. If such a licensing program is created, he hopes it will draw in people from rural backgrounds who could not afford to attend veterinary school but who have the skill and desire to work with livestock.

Dr. Clifford McGinnis, a member of the commission examining the animal care worker issue and a former New Hampshire state veterinarian, expressed doubt that a veterinary technician with additional food animal training could provide diagnoses with the accuracy of a veterinarian, and, for example, tell whether a cow was suffering from grass tetany or hypocalcemia.

"I don't know how they're going to make a veterinarian out of a technician with a couple of years of education," Dr. McGinnis said.

He also doubts that such technicians would be able to find full-time animal care work and avoid taking on second jobs. During his career, Dr. McGinnis has also seen the number of dairy farms in New Hampshire drop from about 500 to 130.

He believes rural animal owners can help solve the problem by hauling their animals to veterinarians—rather than expecting house calls. And veterinarians with small animal practices can help by accepting livestock patients.

Dr. Taylor said the cost of veterinary education and the resulting debt carried by many recent graduates forces new veterinarians who might be interested in farm animal work into companion animal practices that can guarantee them a salary.

"We have to do dog and cat medicine—companion animal medicine— to survive," Dr. Taylor said. "There's not enough farm animal work left to support very many veterinarians."

Dr. Taylor also said that, if he were to send a recent graduate from some universities on a house call to a local farm, that veterinarian's bill would exceed the value of the sick or injured animal as soon as the veterinarian arrived.

It is unclear who would take responsibility for a food animal technician's actions, Dr. Taylor said.

"If I had a licensed food animal technician who had malpractice insurance and a clearly defined role as far as what they're allowed to do and not allowed to do, then I'd be able to provide that person's services to farms, hopefully at less of a cost than sending a veterinarian out there," Dr. Taylor said.