How would you characterize the shortage of veterinary technicians and the underlying causes?
Dr. Gary R. Leff, assistant director of the AVMA Education and Research Division responds:
Depending upon whose numbers you use, there are anywhere from five to eight positions available for every graduate veterinary technician in this country. As veterinarians learn to entrust them with work they are trained to do, the shortage will become even more severe. We have two issues. First of all, there's an increasing demand, and second, veterinary technicians have a relatively short working life.
Demand is increasing primarily because veterinarians are learning what veterinary technicians can do. Many veterinary students now have exposure to technician students in veterinary school and find it a useful collaboration. The veterinary students who work alongside veterinary technician students have a better sense of what veterinary technicians can do. Two universities—Michigan State and Purdue—have veterinary technology programs within their veterinary schools. Several other technology programs use veterinary schools for at least part of their rotation. I'm told that one of the first questions that new veterinarians ask, when they come out to look at a practice, is what kind of technical help they have.
The working life of a veterinary technician used to be about seven years; it's probably up around 10 now. There are some legitimate reasons veterinary technicians quit. Many are young women who have family issues. But the main reason of a professional nature that they quit is being underutilized, and as a result, underpaid. Historically, veterinarians are used to doing things themselves, and it's hard for them to turn over duties. Veterinary technicians have a lot of skills they want to use. Proper delegation of duties frees up veterinarians to do what they should be doing and make the practice more profitable. Hopefully, in the trickle-down, veterinary technicians would be better compensated also. The National Commission on Veterinary Economic Issues has done a good job of showing veterinarians this will help their bottom line.
Describe how developing programs have fared since you joined the AVMA staff and pledged to help new ones get established.
Before I came on staff, I served on the Committee on Veterinary Technician Education and Activities, and I felt the AVMA needed to be more proactive in working with developing technology programs. A couple things happened when I joined the staff. The position I took became devoted exclusively to technology programs, and Julie Horvath, our division's staff assistant who provides support for the CVTEA, now spends most of her time on that work. We want new programs to succeed, and Julie does a great job of helping them get off on the right foot.
In terms of numbers, 119 programs are AVMA-accredited. In 2001 when I came, there were 86, so we've added 33 programs. By year's end, the CVTEA may accredit 11 new programs if they meet the requirements.
We graduate about 2,500 veterinary technicians per year. That's about the same as the number of veterinarians our 28 veterinary schools put out. In a perfect world, we'd have at least a 1-1 ratio, but veterinarians live longer professionally than veterinary technicians do. In a good practice, we should have more veterinary technicians than veterinarians. Super-successful practices all have lots of veterinary technicians. If we look at our dental cousins, they have about a 7-1 ratio of technicians or other assistants to dentists.
Do you think veterinarians are aware of what they can legally delegate to veterinary technicians?
I think veterinarians know that, with few exceptions, the three things veterinary technicians can't do are surgery, diagnosis, and prescribing. Veterinary technicians should be doing everything else. Some states have added a thing or two. The definition of surgery gets a little sticky. Some states allow veterinary technicians to close skin, for example, as long as they didn't make the incision; others say they can't.
Food animal practice is a relatively untapped area when it comes to veterinary technicians. The bulk of them who work in practices are in companion animal practices.
Are veterinary technology students more often pursuing advanced degrees? Specialization?
We have about 15 baccalaureate programs right now. Several programs have an option of a two-year or a four-year program, and we're getting more two-year programs that want to add a four-year dimension.
The CVTEA is wrestling with what a baccalaureate degree should look like in veterinary technology. Clear guidelines do not currently exist to distinguish an associate from a baccalaureate program—we just said a graduate of a two-year program is a veterinary technician and a four-year program is a veterinary technologist. To credential a four-year program, the committee wants it to provide specialized training in an advanced-care area—such as anesthesia or imaging—or a business area, such as practice management.
Where the baccalaureate degree is useful is in areas such as industry, research, practice management, and teaching—and, of course, for personal satisfaction. Veterinary technicians with a baccalaureate who go into practice are generally not going to earn more.
There are no graduate degrees in veterinary technology. The time for them is right. This idea is not new with me—I heard Dr. Sherbyn Ostrich talk to the CVTEA about it when he was AVMA president (1995-1996). As he pointed out, there are PhD nurses, and it would upgrade the whole profession. One place it may be useful is in education, because particularly in four-year colleges and universities, you may need at least a master's degree to teach. Many veterinary technicians have master's degrees, but they have to get them in other fields.
There's definitely an advantage for a veterinary technician to pursue a specialty—currently the National Association of Veterinary Technicians in America recognizes specialties in emergency/critical care, anesthesia, and dentistry. Veterinary technician specialties must be tied in with the veterinary specialties recognized by the American Board of Veterinary Specialties. A lot of veterinary technicians will do it for personal satisfaction, but this status is also useful for working in a specialty referral practice or veterinary school.
What influences someone to study veterinary technology?
If your interest is animal care and handling, the technician field is where you belong. If you're interested in surgery and diagnosis, you should be a veterinarian. The flipside of that is that even though veterinarians are not paid adequately, veterinary technicians truly aren't. According to a 2003 national survey conducted by the AVMA for NAVTA, full-time-employed NAVTA members averaged $30,500 in salary, and nonmembers averaged $26,560.
Veterinary technology program staff go to great length to explain to their students that these are not preveterinary programs. It certainly is a good way for students to gain exposure to the field, but few of their credits will transfer into a preveterinary program. Having said that, if they do go to veterinary school, they will be light-years ahead of their veterinary classmates in terms of hands-on skills. Attrition is high in technology programs—it's probably 30 percent across the board. A certain number of people go into these programs who, in spite of good counseling by program staff, just don't understand the true nature of it.
Veterinary technicians have what one of our CVTEA members who's an educator calls homing instinct—as a group, they don't like to leave home to go to veterinary technology school or afterward. So we'll see pockets of them around a school, and they're unlikely to apply for jobs in a different part of the country unless something pulls them.
In excess of 90 percent of veterinary technicians are women. People are sometimes drawn to the field because they are more comfortable working with animals than dealing with people. The bad news for them is a dog never comes in without a leash attached to a person; it's a people business. As far as age, we have a dumbbell distribution—a fair number of students come right out of high school, and a fair number are in the 30-to-50 age range—second career people. At various programs, I have met students that included a retired banker, nurses, attorneys, and an airline pilot. Some programs have two or three times more applicants than spots. Others basically accept whoever walks in the door.
What is your message to veterinarians who employ veterinary technicians?
The 119 accredited programs are doing a good job of putting out a product the profession needs. The CVTEA does an excellent job of maintaining standards of quality that make those people graduates of worthy programs. I would like to see veterinarians delegate appropriately to their veterinary technicians to be able to pay them so they can stay in the profession and so the veterinarians could elevate their level of practice.