AVMA President's Address to the United States Public Health Service Scientific and Training Symposium

June 21,  2011

Members of the United States Public Health Service, esteemed colleagues and friends, it is a pleasure to be with you today as we discuss the challenges and opportunities facing veterinary public health.

When President Kennedy urged Americans to "Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country," he inspired people from coast to coast to not only sacrifice in their daily lives but to serve their country in ways both big and small.

Many people answered President Kennedy's challenge by dedicating their career to the work of the federal government. They, like so many of you in this room, were inspired by that call to action. I would suggest that what we need today is a new call to action.

Because now, as we all know, critically important jobs in the public health and veterinary sectors are going unfilled. The dearth of young professionals entering these critically important fields has put us in a precarious place, facing an uncertain future that may lack the experts we so badly need to protect both animal and human health.

Here are a few examples of what we are experiencing:

The United States Agricultural Research Service has fallen short of its veterinary medical officer hiring goal.

The Department of the Army reports that its veterinarian reserve corps is not at full strength.

Food Safety and Inspection Service officials say their veterinary workforce has never been fully staffed.

The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service predicts that 30 percent of its veterinarians will be eligible to retire by the end of Fiscal Year 2011.

These are not convenient sound bites created for effect. They are not exaggerations. They are not fabrications.

No. These are factual references taken from the United States Office of Personnel Management. They also serve as the foundation of a 2009 report issued by the United States Government Accountability Office titled, "Veterinarian Workforce: Actions are Needed to Ensure Sufficient Capacity for Protecting Public and Animal Health."

But wait, there's more.

Let me read from an article published in the January-February 2010 issue of "Public Health Reports." I would guess it's an article many of you might be familiar with.

I quote, "The Association of Schools of Public Health estimates that nearly one-quarter of the current workforce will be eligible for retirement by 2012, and some 250,000 additional public health workers will be needed in the coming decade. These shortages threaten the nation's ability to conduct critical health promotion and disease prevention activities."

This passage paints a challenging picture, doesn't it? These impending retirements – and the experiential knowledge they take with them – pose significant challenges for the public health and veterinary professions, as well as for society.

Let me continue. This time, I quote from AVMA CEO Dr. Ron DeHaven, who testified before a Senate Subcommittee in early 2009 to address the findings in the previously mentioned GAO report.

Dr. DeHaven said, "The number of veterinarians available to serve in key public health roles does not meet current demand, and the situation will only get worse without aggressive intervention now. A study conducted at Kansas State University for the Food Supply Veterinary Medicine Coalition, which includes the American Veterinary Medical Association, projects the shortage of food supply veterinarians to worsen by 4 to 5 percent annually for the next several years. And, as the GAO report indicates, this shortage is being felt across the board, from the United States Department of Agriculture, to the Food and Drug Administration and other federal agencies, as well as in the private sector."

As you can see – and I'm sure as you all know – the shortages facing the public health and veterinary workforces are significant and ongoing.

Collectively, as veterinarians and public health officers charged with protecting the health of both people and animals, we have been dealing with vexing workforce issues for some time. And we still have a lot of work to do.

I can assure you, that the American Veterinary Medical Association is fully aware of these challenges. Our intent has always been to tackle these strategic issues head-on. But we realize we cannot do this alone. Only by working with key partners like you can we meet these challenges and build a better future. We can emerge even stronger because of our joint efforts. And the American Veterinary Medical Association is committed to doing just that.

As I was reading the previously mentioned Public Health Reports article, I couldn't help but pause each time I saw something related to the public health field that mirrors the situation we are facing in veterinary medicine.

I'd like to draw a few comparisons for you.

The article mentioned how current funding for the nation's 40 accredited schools of public health is piecemeal and largely reactive. It is my feeling, that while the federal government has identified the public health system as a critical element of our infrastructure, our public health educational system has been compromised because it isn't being funded to the level that allows us to meet expectations.

The same can be said for veterinary education. The 28 accredited schools of veterinary medicine in the United States have not received any type of significant federal funding since the 1970s – four decades ago. These schools rely on state budgets that are now hamstrung due to the economic storm that was – and is – the "great recession."

Many of our veterinary schools are cutting staff and services, as well as delaying much-needed facility upgrades, because their funding has been cut. Take the University of California-Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, for example. The total budget for the veterinary school is indeed greater than it was 20 years ago, but state funding levels are now what they were in 1997. Less than 50 percent of the school's funding comes from the state of California.

As Veterinary School Dean Bennie Osburn put it, "We're state-located, rather than state-supported."

The AVMA has committed a tremendous amount of time and resources over the past few years to help institutions like UC Davis fight for the preservation of existing funding levels. We would prefer to help them in their efforts to receive increased funding, but we are realists. We know that our main goal right now – in light of our nation's budgetary woes – is to at least maintain the status quo.

These efforts have produced mixed results, but we will keep fighting right alongside our veterinary institutions so that we can preserve the gold-standard of education our students deserve and our society expects.

Some of those efforts focus on our involvement in the North American Veterinary Medical Education Consortium. The AVMA, our colleagues at the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges and other stakeholders are working together in the most comprehensive effort ever undertaken to ensure that veterinary medical education meets society's changing needs. The consortium is looking at how educational models, accreditation and licensing can all work together to create a workforce of next-generation veterinarians.

Just as the public health workforce is graying and nearing retirement, so is the veterinary profession. Recent figures gathered by the AVMA indicate that 50 percent of all veterinarians practicing in the critical area of food animal medicine are 50 years old or older. This statistic concerns us, especially if we are going to be able to maintain the high levels of disease prevention and animal care our nation expects to ensure a safe and wholesome food supply, and to protect against zoonotic diseases.

What may be of even greater concern, however, is that only about 4 percent of food animal veterinarians are under the age of 30. This shows us that very few veterinary graduates are pursuing a career in food animal veterinary medicine. Again, we need to do more in this area if we are to protect America's food supply and prevent the spread of disease.

A big reason for these challenges in both public health and veterinary medicine is the cost of education and the level of student debt these young professionals are saddled with upon graduation.

The AVMA survey of the veterinary graduating class of 2010 indicates that student debt now exceeds $133,000, and that trend of rising debt is showing no signs of slowing down. Nearly a full 90 percent of these young and eager professionals had some educational debt when they graduated. And their starting salaries average about half of their debt load when they enter the workforce.

About 2,600 veterinarians enter the U.S. workforce annually. Since 1980, however, the number of veterinarians has remained relatively constant in our country, while the population has increased by 35 percent. Projections by the U.S. Census Bureau call for a global population that could reach 10.5 billion by the year 2050.

I don't need to tell you that more people – both at home and around the globe – means that we need more protein to help feed all these mouths. And we all know where most of that protein comes from – our food animals.

So what is the AVMA doing to address these issues? We are advocating at the national, state and grassroots levels for assistance and relief. We are working hard educating the public about our value to society. And we are empowering those in the profession to assist us in our advocacy and outreach efforts.

We have been a key player in convincing the U.S. Congress and the Executive Branch that federal funding for debt relief is crucial if we are going to boost the number of veterinarians practicing in both public health and food animal veterinary medicine. We initiated – and remain a staunch advocate on Capitol Hill of – the Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program. We are very pleased with the progress we are making now that this program is funded and has granted its first round of awards to 62 veterinarians who have pledged to work in underserved areas in return for debt relief. These awards average more than $96,000 per person and will go a long way toward addressing our nation's shortage of rural private and public practitioners. Now our efforts are focused on ensuring that this valuable program remains funded each year, especially as we enter into a future that will undoubtedly include significant, across-the-board federal budget cuts.

The AVMA, along with our philanthropic arm, the American Veterinary Medical Foundation, has also established its own loan forgiveness program, the Food Animal Veterinarian Recruitment and Retention Program. And I am very pleased that we recently awarded $500,000 in veterinary school loan repayments to five recipients who have pledged to practice in underserved rural areas for a minimum of four years.

We are also quite proud of the scholarship program we administer for Pfizer Animal Health that awards $2,500 scholarships to hundreds of veterinary students per year in U.S. veterinary schools. The student scholars are selected on the basis of several criteria, including academic excellence, leadership and potential for contributing to food animal or food safety veterinary medicine.

The AVMA is also committed to seeing that public health veterinarians can take advantage of the Public Health Workforce Grants and Public Health Workforce Loan Repayment programs. We will continue to push for passage of a Congressional amendment to the Public Health Service Act that will make veterinarians studying public health eligible for loan repayment and add veterinary public health as one of the groups eligible for training grants.

But we're not stopping there. We are also actively pushing for passage of the Veterinary Public Health Workforce and Education Act, which enhances and increases the number of veterinarians trained in veterinary public health. This legislation – if approved – would help boost the veterinary public health workforce by underwriting new facilities and adding to existing ones; would establish a new Division of Veterinary Medicine and Public Health within the Department of Health and Human Services; would establish a veterinary faculty loan repayment program; and would establish a fellowship program for veterinarians interested in food system security and veterinary public health.

On the international stage, we have broadened our already extensive global reach by working closely with groups from both East and West.

We are actively engaged with the OIE – the World Organization for Animal Health – as it leads an international initiative to establish minimum veterinary educational standards around the globe. These standards will help ensure the health and welfare of all animals, most particularly those moving through our agricultural economies.

We also cannot underestimate the value of strong international business relationships with our peers around the world. That's why the AVMA is building new bridges with both established and fledgling veterinary associations, most notably in China and Afghanistan.

Whether it is disease surveillance, food safety or public health, the principles we share as veterinarians and public health experts are the same, regardless of which corner of the world we occupy. The better countries are prepared and equipped to respond to disease within their own borders, the less vulnerable we all are. The best way to keep disease from spreading to where we live is to help developing countries deal with it in their own country. It helps them; it protects us.

So now a question: What can you do to build the ranks, to strengthen veterinary public health and our world's ability to protect its people and its animals?

You can boost your efforts in educating the public; you can bring your passion for your profession and for mentoring to young people and students; and you can up your involvement in career days and college fairs. Urge students to explore and enroll in the Commissioned Officer Student Training and Extern Program.

Be an effective communicator. You are excellent scientists and health professionals, but what we need now, more than ever, are communicators who can take our message to the general public about what we do, why we do it and how important our involvement is for everybody. You know the science, but do you know how to share the science with those who don't have a scientific background? And, perhaps more importantly, are you willing to share that knowledge?

A quiet public servant is indeed a noble public servant, but it is time for you to pick up the sword and rattle it a bit to let everyone know just how important you are in protecting their health. You are our best-kept secret, and part of that is your own fault.

The American Veterinary Medical Association can help – and we are helping – but you are the embodiment of public service, always concerned first and foremost for what is best for the animals and the people you serve, and the world in which they live. You are best positioned to be ambassadors for the profession and for the concept of One Health.

In closing, I think you'd agree that we didn't get into our professions to get rich. We do what we do because we know our careers give more than they take.

And that brings me back to JFK's speech. It was 50 years ago that President Kennedy gave that most memorable inaugural address. Today, I ask you to answer a similar call. If you are energetic, passionate and committed to public health and veterinary service, reach out, encourage and invoke his words.

Take matters into your own hands by attracting more young people into this most noble of professions. Leave your mark by making veterinary public health and veterinary medicine better than when you found it.

By doing so, you'll make a difference, an even greater difference than the invaluable one you are already making today.

Thank you.