When Carlene Decker completed her degree in veterinary technology at Parkland College in 1977, she took a job in a mixed practice where she worked 11-hour days and earned $3 an hour. She stayed there a year before leaving to teach.
Donna Oakley (right)—a veterinary technician, director of nursing at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, and director of the Penn Animal Blood Bank—and veterinary technician Kym Marryot transfuse a patient with packed red blood cells at the Veterinary Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.
"When I went looking for my first job, most people didn't know what veterinary technicians were, didn't know what they were supposed to be paid, and there was just no job market," said Decker, now an associate professor of veterinary technology at Parkland in Champaign, Ill., and on staff of the North American Veterinary Technician Association. "Today, my students have four, five, or six job interviews, and there are countless opportunities for them in all areas—not just in private practice but in research, education, and industry. The amount of opportunities that exist now for veterinary technicians is just humongous compared to what it was."
Many technicians and educators say the technology profession has indeed come a long way since it emerged from the field of veterinary medicine in the 1950s. Back then, veterinary technicians weren't much more than veterinarians' aides.
But now, technicians—who typically receive an associate's or bachelor's degree from an AVMA-accredited program—are written into 42 state practice acts. In most states, technicians can legally do everything in a veterinary practice except make a diagnosis or prognosis, prescribe drugs, or perform surgery.
Although much progress has been made, there are still obstacles on technicians' paths to success—many of them stemming from veterinarians' failure to use technicians to their full potential, advocates say.
"As a profession, veterinarians typically don't appreciate the skills of the educated veterinary technician," said Dr. Allen Balay, director of the veterinary technology program at Ridgewater College in Minnesota and president of the Association of Veterinary Technician Educators.
The 1999 KPMG Megastudy—the most comprehensive economic analysis and forecast of the profession of veterinary medicine—found that technicians could help increase the efficiency of a practice. Technician supporters have already made presentations at forums of the National Commission on Veterinary Economic Issues regarding their role in improving the financial solvency of a veterinary practice (see NCVEI Update, p.307).
"This is coming even more to the forefront with the discussions involving the NCVEI, and many practice managers who are very keen on proper staffing and leveraging a veterinarian's time," said Dr. Michael P. Andrews, chair of the AVMA's Committee on Veterinary Technician Education and Activities. "The only way to effectively do that is to have properly trained people, and the first step under the veterinarian in practice is the veterinary technician."
The North American Veterinary Technician Association supports a practice hierarchy in which veterinarians do only those things they alone can do—diagnose, prescribe, and perform surgery. Technical tasks, such as laboratory work and radiography, are delegated to technicians, and technicians have assistants to whom they can hand down nontechnical tasks.
However, veterinarians are often reluctant to pass down responsibilities such as drawing blood and conducting general examinations, forfeiting valuable time and frustrating their technicians. A 2000 NAVTA survey showed that, in a random sample of practices where association members work, more than one-third of veterinarians are still involved in positioning animals for X-rays and administering preanesthetic drugs.
The survey also showed that technicians' salaries have increased to an average of $25,382 from $20,628 in 1994—when the previous survey was completed—and the average technician now has 10 years of experience rather than eight. But the salaries remain low, and many practices do not offer health insurance or other benefits.
"With improper utilization and, often, poor compensation financially, are we losing technicians from the profession simply because they can't do it financially?" Dr. Andrews said. "I think that there is a leaky bucket—how leaky, it's hard to say."
Officials at NAVTA, the AVMA veterinary technician committee, and the veterinary technician educators' association are all working to improve technicians' situations and reduce attrition. One strategy is to continue educating veterinarians' about technicians' value.
"If they get technicians in roles where they're given responsibility and appropriately compensated, then I think that you'll find that people would stay in the profession," Dr. Andrews said.
However, even veterinarians who are convinced that technicians are essential may not be able to hire one. Demand for technicians is already far outpacing the number of graduates, Dr. Balay said, even though new programs have sprung up across the country. The AVMA veterinary technician committee, which is responsible for accrediting degree programs, has stepped up its efforts—between 1997 and 2001, the number of accredited programs jumped from 72 to 88.
But Dr. Balay said because more veterinarians are graduating and entering the job market than veterinary technicians, there is still a long way to go to satisfy the need for technicians. This leads him to think that the profession should consider ways to provide some training for clinic employees who do not have a veterinary technology degree.
"I think there's some challenges for all of us within veterinary medicine, and within veterinary technology education, to accept that that's got to happen and to figure out ways to make it positive for the delivery of veterinary health care," he said.
Although he said he does not advocate hiring uneducated staff to do the work of veterinary technicians unless it is absolutely necessary, veterinarians and technicians have a public responsibility to develop a way to ensure that people trained on the job are not hazardous to animal health, Dr. Balay said.
Decker and others, however, say they think formal education is the only way to protect animals and people, and that veterinarians should refrain from hiring anyone other than educated, registered technicians for these positions.
"I think that a person needs to understand why they're performing a procedure, and I also feel that the person that's learning to be a veterinary technician should not be practicing, if you will, and learning all of their skills on clients' animals," Decker said.
Some states allow people who do not have a veterinary technology degree to take a licensing examination. Janet Buck, a veterinary technician, director of the veterinary technology program at Stautzenberger College in Toledo, Ohio, and vice chair of the AVMA veterinary technician committee, is also a member of the Ohio Veterinary Medical Board. She said veterinarians will often still train people to do tasks they are not qualified to do, and state boards often lack the regulatory authority to remedy the situation.
"Until we have good practice acts, and good enforcement of those practice acts, I think the technicians will continue to struggle," she said. The understanding behind the technical tasks could be the difference between life and death for an animal, said Donna Oakley, a veterinary technician, director of nursing at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, director of the Penn Animal Blood Bank, and a member of the AVMA veterinary technician committee.
A degree in veterinary technology includes training in anatomy and physiology, microbiology, and chemistry. New specialty certifications are also developing to give technicians an additional step on the career ladder.
Oakley is a charter member of the Academy of Veterinary Emergency Critical Care Technicians, the first organization to be recognized as a specialty by NAVTA. The academy requires that educated, registered veterinary technicians complete three years of work experience and 25 hours of continuing education in emergency and critical care before taking the certifying examination.
"It establishes something concrete for younger people coming into the profession to look forward to," Oakley said. "It's not, 'I'm just not going to go and do the same thing day in and day out—I can continue to broaden my horizons, expand my knowledge base, and shoot for something, for a bigger and better goal.'"
Veterinary technician educators say they work hard to instill individual strength and empowerment, teaching students that they can negotiate for better hours and pay and even walk away if job conditions are less than ideal. If technicians don't know how valuable their skills are, they are more likely to settle for unsatisfying jobs with low pay.
Educators must focus on "making them feel as though they can walk in there and ask for what they're worth, and how to increase their value, and how to increase their responsibility load, and how to make them aware of all the different opportunities there are in this field," Oakley said. "It's not just small animal practice, large animal practice, or research laboratories. It's wide open."