Veterinarians eager to talk about profession's future

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R. Scott Nolen

About this time last year, veterinarians were becoming familiar with the words "Market study" and "Megastudy," the abridged names for the study on veterinary economics commissioned by the AVMA, AAHA, and Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges. Following the unveiling of the study summary's prognosis for the profession at the AVMA House of Delegates and in JAVMA, reaction was a mix of enthusiasm, criticism, and indifference.

There were those who applauded the initiative, saying veterinary earnings have been stagnant for too long and the study is a good first step toward a remedy. Others took issue with some of the six critical conclusions, namely that large numbers of women entering the profession would drive down income and that, in economic terms, there is an oversupply of veterinarians. Among some food-animal groups was the perception that the study would be used to justify the curtailing of food animal curriculums at the veterinary colleges.

NCVEI Forum attendeesAnd others received the study with a yawn, saying veterinarians have known for years what the study states.

In the months after the summary's release, the AVMA, AAHA, and AAVMC together established the independent, not-for-profit National Commission on Veterinary Economic Issues (NCVEI) with the mandate to stimulate improvement in all areas of the profession.

Several of the commission's 12-member board of directors, comprising the executive members of the AVMA, AAHA, and AAVMC, spoke at veterinary meetings and retreats, using the study as a springboard to discuss the challenges and opportunities facing the profession. They were also meeting with a few of the louder critics to better understand their side and persuade them to work with the national commission.

If one were looking for a means to judge how successful the NCVEI has been, then the National Forum on Veterinary Economic Issues is as good a barometer as any. The NCVEI-sponsored forum was featured July 24 during the AVMA Annual Convention in Salt Lake City.

An estimated 340 people were in attendance. It was the first of several anticipated national meetings for veterinarians to talk about the findings of the KPMG LLP study ("The Current and Future Market for Veterinarians and Veterinary Medical Services in the United States," also known as the Megastudy). Their concerns and observations will direct the national commission as it develops action plans to bolster veterinary economics and the profession.

The format of the 3½-hour meeting allowed for comments from various interest groups and state veterinary associations, as well as private practitioners. Breakout sessions on such issues as pricing strategies, promoting efficiency in the delivery system, and gender, followed.

An outcome of all the attention on veterinary economics is that the Student AVMA, during its symposium at the convention, initially approved a recommendation to form a committee looking at parts of the KPMG LLP study concerning veterinary students. A full vote on the committee by the student association is not expected until early next year, but in the meantime, the students will begin holding economic seminars at the veterinary colleges in October.

Perhaps Dr. Peter Eyre, dean of the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine, best summarized the growing awareness among veterinarians to put down their arguments and move forward. "This is not a perfect study, but it's pretty good, and it's the best we have ever had. We need to recognize that, recognize the imperfections, and stop arguing and tearing the process apart because of some of these issues."

Of importance to those concerned about adequate representation by the NCVEI were the new appointments to the board of directors. The AVMA's appointments are Dr. Randy Bush, Flora, Ind, and Dr. Carolynn T. MacAllister, Stillwater, Okla; and Dr. James E. Nave, Las Vegas, chair of the NCVEI, reappointed to a one-year term. Outgoing AVMA representatives are Dr. John I. Freeman, Franklinton, NC, and Dr. Sherbyn W. Ostrich, Robesonia, Pa. For the AAVMC, Dr. Sheila M. McGuirk, Madison, Wis, replaces Dr. James L. Voss, Fort Collins, Colo.

The AAHA had not yet determined its appointments.

Two critics of the study, Dr. Tom Burkgren, executive director of the AASP, and Dr. Larry Hutchinson, president of the AABP, were pleased with the appointment of Dr. Bush, a member of the AASP. Dr. Burkgren expressed his belief that veterinarians need to be unified as a profession. "I think this national commission can do that for us," he said.

Some of the more notable comments during the forum dealt with the underutilization of staff as a contributor to low income. The problems that affect veterinary medicine affect the entire health care team. Speaking for the North American Veterinary Technician Association, Linda Merrill said veterinary technicians are leaving the profession in droves because of low salaries. When practitioners are understaffed, efficiency suffers, as does the bottomline, she said.

"Unfulfilled veterinary technician positions due to the current shortage will ultimately lead to a decrease in doctor productivity. If doctor productivity falls, then staff salaries can be impacted," Merrill said.

Discussion at the breakout sessions touched on the scarcity of women leaders in the veterinary colleges and veterinary associations, the shrinking market for food-animal producers and its effects on food animal practitioners, the need for models of practice mergers, the Good Samaritan mentality that leads to low fees, and the benefits of a guide to help practitioners better understand pricing strategies. The NCVEI is forming a committee that will look specifically at veterinary skills, knowledge, aptitude, and attitude.

Comments from the forum were reviewed when the NCVEI met in August.