Veterinary colleges focus on economic concerns

Challenges and opportunities addressed at AAVMC conference
Published on April 18, 2012
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Coping with the veterinary profession's financial challenges was a central theme of the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges' Annual Conference, held in Alexandria, Va., March 7-11.

Presentations on veterinary practice and workforce trends were offered during the conference, along with sessions on areas where the demand for veterinary expertise could likely increase.

Veterinary college deans, AAVMC officials, and AVMA leaders convened at the conference to discuss potential solutions to the profession's economics problems, particularly as they relate to veterinary education. The meeting followed up on an earlier summit held this January (see JAVMA, March 1, 2012).

Dr. Bennie I. Osburn

"We need to really pay attention to the demographics of animals,
the economy, the needs of society—all of these are important."
Dr. Bennie I. Osburn, interim executive director, Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges


Declining frequency of veterinary visits, high student debt loads for all health professions, and salary and employment projections for veterinary graduates were among the topics addressed at the March summit. Dr. Link Welborn, chair of the AVMA's new Veterinary Economics Strategy Committee, says these closed-door sessions are a valuable opportunity for collaboration.

"There was a general consensus that there are significant economic challenges within veterinary medicine, and the AVMA and AAVMC needed to work together with other stakeholders to better understand these challenges and to develop potential solutions," Dr. Welborn said.

Approximately 75 veterinary representatives attended the summit. They agreed that the AAVMC will consider forming a task force to identify solutions for high veterinary student debt and prepare a plan for providing financial counseling to veterinary students. Additionally, the AVMA Veterinary Economics Strategy Committee will develop a forum for this year's AVMA Annual Convention in San Diego on ways new graduates working in small animal practices can maximize their productivity and earnings.

And finally, the AVMA will establish an advisory group with AAVMC representation to cooperate on the design and oversight of a veterinary workforce study the Association is expected to commission in the near future.

AAVMC Interim Executive Director Bennie I. Osburn sees value in the future AVMA study and believes such evaluations should be conducted every three to five years to ensure that the veterinary profession is on the right course.

"We need to really pay attention to the demographics of animals, the economy, the needs of society—all of these are important," Dr. Osburn said.

A presentation at the AAVMC conference highlighted how global demand for animal protein will likely expand the market for U.S.-produced food of animal origin, increasing the need for veterinary supervision and expertise. China, for example, is expected to experience a dramatic demand for food to feed its burgeoning population, as will other areas of the globe.

"The animal health industry is at a crossroads," Dr. Rick Sibbel, director of U.S. cattle technical services for Merck Animal Health, told attendees. "Most of my company's recent hires in the cattle and swine businesses have been veterinarians, and I expect that trend to continue."

Public practice is another sector where the need for veterinary expertise is growing. Dr. Valerie Ragan, director of the Center for Public and Corporate Veterinary Medicine at the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine, sees opportunities in areas where few or no veterinarians were working five years ago. These include disease surveillance, risk assessment and modeling, and emergency preparedness and response, Dr. Ragan explained.

A workshop was held during the AAVMC conference on strategies for emphasizing preventive medicine in the veterinary curriculum. The initiative is based on concepts advocated by the Partnership for Preventive Pet Healthcare. The AAVMC, which is part of the partnership, plans to assist in developing these programs at the various veterinary colleges.

Also speaking at the AAVMC conference was Dr. Jim Lloyd, associate dean for budget, planning, and institutional research at the Michigan State University College of Veterinary Medicine, who addressed the issue of student debt. Except for a dip in 2011, salaries for new graduates and veterinarians as a whole have been rising faster than the rate of inflation, according to Dr. Lloyd.

He outlined an array of loan repayment and forgiveness options, such as debt consolidation, income-based repayment plans, the Veterinary Medical Loan Repayment Program, state-sponsored programs, and the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program.

"For students who really want to become veterinarians, there are options that can enable them to achieve their goals and thrive," Dr. Lloyd said.