Is the rural food practice shortage alleviated?

Group warns oversupply could hurt practitioners
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An association of cattle veterinarians says the U.S. no longer has a shortage of veterinarians willing to work in private rural food supply practice.

The American Association of Bovine Practitioners said in a report released May 20 that efforts to increase interest in rural practice have been successful, and remaining underserved areas may be unable to sustain veterinary practices.

"Continuing to increase the number of veterinarians interested in serving rural areas will not solve this problem," the report states. "In fact, creating an 'over supply' of food supply veterinarians will lead to widespread unemployment or underemployment of food supply private practitioners and will have a significant detrimental effect on salaries for all veterinarians."


The three-page document represents the joint opinion of an AABP Ad Hoc Committee on Rural Veterinary Practice, which wrote that increased costs for livestock owners, a collapse of milk prices, and the national recession likely influenced the job market for rural veterinarians starting in 2008.

"In instances where rural jobs are still available, these jobs remain unfilled because the economics may be undesirable for an experienced practitioner and, in small clinics, there may be a lack of mentorship and support for graduating veterinary students," the report states. Decreasing numbers of livestock farms and increasing herd sizes at remaining farms could also influence prospects, according to the report.

Dr. Christine B. Navarre, AABP president, described a mismatch between veterinarians who are looking for jobs and rural areas that would benefit from access to veterinarians yet can't sustain a practice. While educational loan repayment programs provide short-term help, she said veterinarians need business models that will provide long-term work. The committee is considering how to match veterinarians with areas of need and planning to study how to build and sustain practices.

Others say more study needed

Veterinarian examines a cow on a farm visit

Dr. Marguerite Pappaioanou, executive director of the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges, said she applauds the AABP for providing an informed opinion and raising important concerns, but she thinks the veterinary profession needs peer-reviewed research and systematic analysis of the veterinary workforce. Without such scientific examination, she is concerned that potential veterinary students could be driven away from the profession by opinions that the markets for food animal and companion animal practice are saturated.

"Certainly, if you look at messages (from their respective professions) for physicians, for dentists, for nurses, the overriding call is that there are shortages and people are needed left, right, and center," Dr. Pappaioanou said. "And that certainly is not the message that veterinary medicine is sending out at this point in time."

What we're all looking for is an evidence base behind opinions.

Dr. Marguerite Pappaioanou, executive director, Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges

Dr. Pappaioanou said the number of students applying to veterinary colleges has not grown for several years. Citing AAVMC statistics, she said that in 2010, U.S. veterinary colleges together received a mean of 2.1 applications for each first-year seat, and she was concerned that a lack of evidence-based projections, for workforce needs, could make it more difficult for schools to attract the best and brightest students.

Dr. Pappaioanou expects that a report from the National Academy of Sciences, "Assessing the Current and Future Workforce Needs in Veterinary Medicine," will provide well-researched, peer-reviewed findings. The report, which was commissioned by the AVMA and the AAVMC, was initially projected for publication in early 2008 but was still pending by early summer 2011.

"What we're all looking for is an evidence base behind opinions," she said.

The AAVMC and AABP were among nine partner organizations in the Food Supply Veterinary Medicine Coalition, which published a 2006 report forecasting that the demand for veterinarians in food supply medicine would outpace the supply of graduates to fill those jobs through 2016, although there was disagreement on the extent of the shortages.

The panel recommended measures such as student debt repayment and scholarship programs, mentorship programs, specialized education centers, increased education, recruitment, marketing, business guidance, and reserved class spots related to food supply veterinary medicine.

David M. Andrus, PhD, one of the authors of the 2006 study, expressed respect for the authors of the AABP report but encouraged more study to make sure decisions regarding the veterinary workforce are based on accurate evidence. He recommended using tools such as forecasting studies, estimation studies, and scenario building.

The AABP noted some interesting trends, Dr. Andrus said, but may not have addressed job market influences such as changes in technology, political and legal environments, and cultural environments related to food production. The AABP report also appears to focus on a traditional role for veterinarians rather than potentially new and integrated positions, he said.

While the AABP's report suggests the demand for food supply veterinarians has changed since 2006, Dr. Andrus said that this remains uncertain without further study.

Projections from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics indicate the veterinary profession will grow by 33 percent from 2008-2018, but the number of veterinarians in agriculture and other areas of animal production is expected to remain level. Overall employment of veterinarians is expected to rise from 59,700 to 79,400 during that period, while the nation is expected to maintain a supply of 2,300 veterinarians in animal production.

Those statistics were developed on the basis of historic employment data and research into an array of trends that could influence the demand for veterinarians, bureau information states. The bureau's Occupational Outlook Handbook for 2010-2011 also states that job prospects in farm animal practice should be excellent, because rural locations have less competition for veterinary jobs.

Efforts to recruit rural practitioners continue

On May 24, Sens. Thad Cochran of Mississippi and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan introduced a bill intended to direct federal grants toward increasing veterinary service in underserved areas in large animal, mixed animal, and public health practices. In statements about the legislation, the Veterinary Services Investment Act, the senators cited statistics that indicated demand for food supply veterinarians was expected to outpace supply over the next seven years. Food Supply Veterinary Medicine Coalition figures from 2006 indicate that the demand for veterinarians in food supply medicine is expected to outstrip supply by 4 percent to 5 percent annually through 2016.

In instances where rural jobs are still available, these jobs remain unfilled because the economics may be undesirable for an experienced practitioner and, in small clinics, there may be a lack of mentorship and support for graduating veterinary students.

From the report "Summary Opinion of the American Association of Bovine Practitioner's Ad Hoc Committee on Rural Veterinary Practice"

Through the Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program, the Department of Agriculture is also giving up to $25,000 annually for each veterinarian selected to practice in designated shortage areas, which are determined by factors such as geographic area and the need for specific types of practice. The AVMA had lobbied in favor of passage and funding of the program, which is intended to help veterinarians pay off student loans in exchange for spending at least three years filling shortages.

The USDA gave loan repayments to 53 veterinarians during the 2010 fiscal year through the program, according to Jennifer Martin, a spokeswoman for the USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Funding decisions had not been made for the fiscal year starting Oct. 1, but 220 shortage areas have been designated.

Asked if NIFA has an opinion as to whether the U.S. has a shortage of veterinarians in rural food animal practice, Martin said state animal health officials continue sending nominations for shortage areas, and NIFA respects their expert opinions.

At least 19 states have also passed legislation or created programs to give financial incentives to veterinarians who work in food animal practice.

While the AABP committee members considered trying to quantify the demand for rural food supply veterinarians and the availability of veterinarians for food animal practice, they determined that the AABP would need to spend considerable amounts of time and money to produce a report that could be outdated by its completion, Dr. Navarre said.

Despite concerns about an oversupply of veterinarians, Dr. Navarre said the AABP committee was not calling for cancellation or reduction of programs that encourage veterinarians to enter rural practice or for reduction of veterinary college class sizes. But she said the committee members were concerned that people could expand those programs and class sizes on the basis of a shortage that doesn't exist.

Dr. Tom Burkgren, executive director of the American Association of Swine Veterinarians, said his association has not tried to estimate the supply of, or demand for, veterinarians. Instead, it has tried to improve training and education for students interested in swine medicine and to allow the marketplace to decide where they will work. But he thinks the AABP brought up good points about making rural practice professionally and economically viable, and the AASV shares concerns about increasing veterinary class sizes without paying attention to models for rural practice.

Dr. Dean Christianson, president of the Academy of Rural Veterinarians, doesn't think the U.S. has a shortage of veterinarians in rural practice but worries that one could be coming. He knows of veterinarians who have postponed retirement and delayed hiring associates because of economic difficulties. Other veterinarians have had difficulty selling their practices, which he thinks might be part of a shift toward regional multiple-veterinarian practices that give younger veterinarians benefits such as shared on-call duties.

Dr. Christianson has seen increased interest in his own rural practice through an increased number of applicants for openings at his clinic in 2010, compared with 2009. But he thinks more needs to be done to train veterinarians to succeed financially and stay in rural areas.

"It doesn't seem like getting students interested in it is a problem," Dr. Christianson said. "But if there's a problem, it's more with retention."