Food animal veterinarian shortage causing growing concern

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veterinarian shortage causing
Veterinarians meet to discuss the problem

Are food animal veterinarians becoming an endangered species? According to many veterinarians who gathered at Kansas State University in October 2000, the answer is 'yes.'

The profession is facing a shortage of food animal veterinarians in the public, private, industrial, and academic sectors, and the problem is on the rise. Fewer food animal-oriented students are entering veterinary schools, fewer graduates are entering food animal practice, and too many veterinarians are leaving food animal practice.

The American Association of Swine Veterinarians has seen U.S. membership drop from 1,103 members in 1999 to 935 in 2002, according to Dr. Rick Sibbel, president-elect of the AASV. For that period, student membership also dropped from 155 to 144 and overall membership sank from 1,700 to 1,523. The decline cannot be blamed on salary incentives. "Recent economic studies show swine veterinarian to be one of the best paid specialists," Dr. Sibbel said.

The Kansas State University meeting was organized as a forum to discuss the problem and possible solutions. More than 200 individuals attended, including veterinarians from Canada, Australia, and 24 U.S. states.

The shortage, explains Dr. Peter Chenoweth, a professor of clinical sciences at Kansas State University, could threaten food safety and have grave consequences for animals and humans. It may increase the vulnerability of livestock to exotic diseases, including acts of bioterroism. And it could cause the public to lose confidence in animal agriculture and its products.

"Ironically, these trends are occurring at a time of greatly increased public concern," commented Dr. Chenoweth, who was a prime mover in organizing the conference.

"We have a unique position in our society. We will be the first profession that's looked to, to provide animal health service to livestock operations," said Dr. Jim Jarrett, executive vice president of the American Association of Bovine Practitioners. "If we don't provide it, the next place they will probably look is to the animal science professionals."

This would result in a lost opportunity for the veterinary profession. "I think if and when that were to happen, the veterinary profession will lose a real important segment of our history and, more importantly, a real opportunity for employment and for service for our colleagues," Dr. Jarrett said.

Some conference participants think the profession's shortage is caused by an image problem. Because many veterinary students are from urban areas and do not have farm backgrounds, they have little idea of the opportunities and fulfillment associated with food animal veterinary medicine, according to Dr. Chenoweth.

Attendees discussed a need for a nationally targeted recruitment campaign that would promote the benefits of the profession, emphasizing competitive salaries and allaying concerns about opportunities for spouses to find employment in rural areas.

Providing student loan relief for veterinarians who work in rural areas may also be a way to make the profession more attractive.

The organizers are hopeful that the meeting will produce change. At press time, Dr. Chenoweth was in the process of writing a summary of the meeting, highlighting the key recommendations. One of these is to develop a national food animal veterinary education initiative. The initiative could tackle challenges such as developing and implementing a marketing strategy and recruitment program. It could also facilitate an active food animal veterinary information networking system. Potential funding could come from the industry, organized veterinary medicine, allied groups, and granting bodies.

Another key recommendation will be to develop centers of excellence for food animal veterinary training. These centers could serve as resources for DVM and post-DVM training as well as continuing education. For example, a "Centers of Swine Veterinary Excellence" could foster reciprocity between veterinary schools, nurturing collaboration, Dr. Sibbel explained.

A third, more controversial, idea being recommended is having admission quotas for food animal- oriented students. The idea is based on the engineering model used in many undergraduate schools. Introducing students to food animal concepts earlier in the curriculum, and increasing tracking for food animal careers during DVM programs, may also help increase interest in food animal practice. According to Dr. Sibbel, the profession needs more role models to get students out into the field early in their matriculation and show them the career path.

A final key recommendation involves the AVMA; the organization will be urged to undertake a survey of food animal veterinarians to more solidly determine the current situation and future needs. "The AVMA will also be urged to promote food animal veterinary medicine in the interests of the profession," Dr. Chenoweth commented.

Dr. Lyle P. Vogel, director of the AVMA Scientific Activities Division, participated in the conference. He says the profession may be able to learn from the current, comprehensive review of Australia's rural veterinary services, which was jointly funded by industry and the Australian government. Another source to restudy is the report from the 1998 AVMA-sponsored and -organized symposium on "Opportunities for Veterinarians in Agribusiness," published Dec. 15, 1998, in JAVMA.

Dr. Vogel was greatly impressed with the enthusiasm shown by the attendees at the Kansas State conference and with the many ideas presented to improve the situation. "I'm looking forward to reviewing the report to see where the AVMA may be able to assist in the solutions," he said. "It is also probable that the efforts of the National Commission on Veterinary Economic Issues will dovetail with some of the recommendations from the conference."

When the AVMA receives the report from the meeting, it will be referred to AVMA councils and committees for evaluation and recommendations on how the AVMA can help address the problem.