AVMA Answers: President-Elect Hammer discusses veterinary workforce bill

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Why is the Veterinary Public Health Workforce Expansion Act, pending in Congress, important to veterinary medicine as well as to public and animal health?

Dr. Gregory S. HammerDr. Gregory S. Hammer, AVMA president-elect, responds:

I really, truly believe we're experiencing a crisis in the veterinary workforce, and there are many people who would agree with me. According to a report by the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges, the identified veterinary shortages and projected increased needs in public health indicate we'll have a shortage of up to 15,000 veterinarians by 2025. All areas of veterinary practice are in need, but especially public health and food supply veterinary medicine. That's been pretty well documented, especially in the rural areas. It has been reported that half of the federal food safety veterinarians are eligible for retirement in the next five years. It's going to be hard for us to catch up, even if we had started last year.

Our capability to respond to disease emergencies is decreasing as these threats are increasing, and that could be a real problem for veterinary medicine and the public. Seventy percent of the recent emerging diseases have been zoonoses. With these figures, we cannot ignore the influence veterinarians have on public health. They're the first line of surveillance in emerging zoonotic diseases.

Veterinary colleges must immediately address these shortages, but they can't meet the demand with the current infrastructure, and that's why this bill is so important. This bill would provide $1.5 billion over a 10-year period for competitive grants. Veterinary schools have to be able to increase capacity to educate more veterinarians to meet society's needs. If we don't do this, someone else will step in to meet those needs, and that's a concern because those people may be less qualified than veterinarians to protect public health.

This is the second time the bill has been introduced. What will it take to get the proposal passed into law?

First of all, this will be the main thrust of my presidency—trying to enlist the membership, the grassroots, clients, and anyone else we can to help put pressure on Congress to pass this legislation. It's going to take political involvement at the deepest grassroots possible, very much like the active grassroots participation of clients and veterinarians who helped with the passage of the Animal Medicinal Drug Use Clarification Act. We need to put fliers in our waiting rooms asking clients to be part of the army to call senators and representatives to pass this bill. Second, it's time for veterinarians to get on the phone and call their senators and representative to co-sponsor this bill. This is the best opportunity we have to pass this legislation—H.R. 1232 and S. 746. We must seize the chance with the 110th Congress.

As a candidate for AVMA president-elect, you stressed the importance of working closely with the veterinary colleges. When you become president this July, how will you go about doing that?

We must work closely to strengthen our relationship with the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges, partner to speak with one voice, and advocate veterinary medicine as a career to young people. We've had a flat applicant pool for years, and part of that is our own fault. We have been discouraging bright young people from going into veterinary medicine. We set too high a debt, too low a salary, and too many work hours. We've got to quit doing that because, as far as I'm concerned, it's still the greatest profession there is. We need to help the veterinary colleges get a better applicant pool.

The other thing the AVMA needs to do with the colleges, not just the AAVMC, is protect the value of the veterinary diploma, which will decrease unless we continue supporting the quality of veterinary education. The quality of education we have at the AVMA-accredited schools is the gold standard. Your veterinary diploma will decrease in value if that education decreases in value.

Also, we have a very valuable resource in the veterinary teaching hospital. These are national treasures that we must see continue and we must continually improve, using the Veterinary Public Health Workforce Expansion Act to protect and enhance their role.

When you succeed President Roger K. Mahr, will you continue his one-health initiative?

I've pledged to continue President Mahr's one-health initiative. There is a rapidly growing group of physicians, veterinarians, and public health officials who are recognizing the importance of this initiative. Veterinarians are uniquely qualified to push for this collaboration, and we must continue to do so. I don't think the physicians or public health sector will push for it; veterinarians have got to make it happen. It's for the sake of healthier animals and humans that all physicians, veterinarians, and public health officials must embrace this concept of one health.