Solving today’s workforce challenges to ensure a bright future

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President's column - Dr. Rena Carlson

With widespread and ongoing staffing shortages for veterinarians and other veterinary staff, especially in some key segments, the last few years have been extremely difficult for the veterinary profession. Veterinary workforce issues didn’t start with the pandemic, but COVID’s disruption certainly added to them, causing more people to leave their jobs, switch to relief work, or retire. The heaviness of these burdens has put unnecessary pressure and stress on not just practitioners but also the practices themselves. 

These issues are so critical that we’ve decided to focus our upcoming Veterinary Leadership Conference, which takes place in Chicago in January, on these topics. 

During the conference, the AVMA House of Delegates will meet and hear perspectives from across the profession during its Veterinary Information Forum and have a robust discussion on key topics for which proposals and decisions being made now have the potential to markedly affect the future of veterinary medicine, veterinary professionals, and the quality of services delivered for our patients and clients. 

The Veterinary Information Forum session will include a deep dive on the challenges and opportunities associated with the veterinary workforce, including an update on workforce numbers; efforts in recruitment and retention; veterinary technicians and team dynamics; and telehealth. We will be sending a robust recap to all AVMA members after the conference concludes. 

The AVMA is committed to these topics because it is critical that we identify the right solutions to help veterinary teams now and into the future. 

A focus on companion animal veterinarians

Some circulating estimates are calling for a 40% increase in companion animal veterinarians by 2030, but we believe those numbers reflect pandemic outliers and don’t consider all the necessary details when estimating supply and demand. 

Unfortunately, these numbers are causing lawmakers to consider drastic changes to the profession that could have long-lasting, negative impacts on the profession and put animals at risk. This includes creating a mid-level position and opening the VCPR under the guise of expanding access to care. 

In addition, a 40% increase risks an overcorrection, which could be a concern for our new colleagues who are and will soon be entering veterinary medicine. These graduates deserve a thriving profession that provides a stable future for them to work and succeed. 

Right now, it is difficult to hire a companion animal veterinarian. The good news is that changes are already in motion to correct this, and we are starting to see the impacts. These changes include class size expansion at several established schools, as well as colleagues joining us from three new veterinary schools graduating in 2023, 2024, and 2025. We know approximately 75% of current graduates enter companion animal practice, and this percentage increases each year, so we anticipate that the number of companion animal veterinarians will grow by more than 20% by 2030. There are also at least 12 new veterinary schools under development. Such growth is unprecedented. 

We know there are segments that require tailored solutions, including veterinarians in emergency practice; specialty practice; shelters; academia; rural areas, particularly in food animal and equine practice; and public health.

These segments have unique, long-standing barriers to attracting and retaining veterinary professionals, and they require tailored solutions to reverse these trends. These barriers will not be reduced simply by adding more veterinarians to the profession. What will help the profession is identifying the root causes of these barriers, working together across the profession to resolve those unique issues, and in the meantime helping practitioners in every segment to increase their practice efficiency. This alone will have a tremendous positive impact. 

We encourage practices to fully leverage the veterinary team, improve workplace culture to retain staff, and integrate technology (including the appropriate use of telemedicine) to help maximize efficiency in both the short and long term, for veterinarians across the profession.

Why hasty reactions are ill advised 

Based on the numbers claiming crisis-level shortages, some are calling for the introduction of a new mid-level position (MLP). Current descriptions of a veterinary MLP do not define a unique and needed skill set that will improve or enhance the delivery of veterinary care, but instead overlap the training and responsibilities of veterinary technicians, veterinary technologists, and veterinary technician specialists. These talented professionals already provide us with the skill set required for a high-performing veterinary team. 

Furthermore, the extensive education that veterinarians receive, both in the theory and practice of veterinary medicine, positions them to function safely and effectively as medical decisionmakers. In treating animals, a veterinary mid-level position is prohibited by federal law from prescribing either on label or extralabel as the statutory language is specific to “veterinarian” only. 

The claims of crisis-level shortages have also led groups to lobby at the state level for a virtual VCPR, claiming that it will increase access to care. Some of these groups appear more focused on product sales than patient care, and a virtual VCPR would enable them to sell more prescription drugs to animal owners for higher profits. We’ve seen this happen in human medicine, where pursuit of profits has led to overprescription of antibiotics, fueled the opioid epidemic, and contributed to human drug shortages. We must keep this from happening in veterinary medicine. 

To be clear, the AVMA believes in the power of telemedicine, but not as a replacement for in-person care. If an in-person visit comes first, an accurate diagnosis and good treatment plan can be established and telemedicine can be used on an ongoing basis or even later to assess progress and adjust the plan. Using a hybrid approach to telemedicine can make future check-ins more convenient and less costly for both the patient and the practitioner. 

Further, nearly one in four rural Americans say broadband access is still a major problem, and those who also have lower incomes often do not have financial flexibility to address connectivity challenges necessary for telemedicine visits. A concerted effort to deliver mobile veterinary services to areas where access is challenging is a much better option than virtual telemedicine in these situations. We will get to a diagnosis and treatment plan much faster. 

Identifying effective solutions for workforce challenges 

As we work together through our challenges, we must consider all pertinent data, and separate short-term problems from the long term. Even more importantly, what are the right short- and long-term solutions? 

There are tangible actions that practices can adopt today that will make an immediate and long-term impact. This includes focusing on increasing staff retention to create operational continuity, fully leveraging the veterinarian-led team, and adopting technology to its fullest extent

The AVMA has invested in research and resources to support practices in closing the system and process efficiency gap. In fact, this year’s Veterinary Business and Economic Forum focused on equipping veterinary practices with data, insights, and tools to make progress on addressing such challenges. On behalf of our patients, our clients, and our colleagues, we have an obligation to use these innovative tools in our pursuit of excellent veterinary health care now and well into the future.

There has never been a more pivotal time to be a part of the veterinary profession and to work together to address these pressing issues. Please consider joining us at the Veterinary Leadership Conference on January 4-6, 2024, in Chicago to learn more about driving solutions to these challenges and how we can address workforce issues together.


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