A study in contrasts

Bright, dark spots in profession outlined in NRC report
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A much-anticipated and long-overdue study by the National Research Council for the National Academy of Sciences has found “little evidence” of widespread workforce shortages in the U.S. veterinary profession. Study members also concluded that the cost of veterinary education is at a “crisis point” and suggested that the profession may be at risk of seeing a decrease in the quality of applicants.

The NRC study, “Workforce Needs in Veterinary Medicine,” paints a sober—if unsurprising—picture of the profession and some of the challenges facing it today. Other concerns laid out include the dwindling presence of veterinarians in food animal production and care, the steady decline in funding of veterinary education and research, and the need for practitioners to do more to ensure global food security.

Released May 30, the veterinary workforce study was six years in the making. A 15-member expert committee of the NRC was charged in 2006 with exploring historical changes in the size and characteristics of the veterinary workforce, assessing the demographics and adequacy of the current supply of veterinarians in various occupational categories, and examining trends affecting the kinds of jobs available to veterinarians. The AVMA, Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges, American Animal Hospital Association, Bayer Animal Health, and Burroughs Welcome Fund sponsored the study, which was expected to be published in 2008.

According to the NRC committee, the economic downturn and difficulties with locating veterinary workforce data hampered its work and ultimately delayed the study’s release. Earlier this year, the AVMA initiated its own study of the veterinary workforce with the goal of ensuring the profession’s economic sustainability. The study is expected to be completed in 2013.

The NRC investigation found that industry and some areas of academic veterinary medicine are experiencing shortages of practitioners who have additional qualifications, such as those with a veterinary degree plus a master’s in business administration or public health or a doctorate, or those with a veterinary degree and advanced training in pathology or laboratory animal medicine. Meanwhile, the committee sees the outlook for companion animal practitioners as, at best, “uncertain” and, at worst, oversupplied.

According to the report, the current economic recession makes it difficult to judge trends. Some studies show that expenditures on pets are closely tied to household income, which is likely to rebound. However, increases in the supply of companion animal veterinarians in the workforce could place downward pressure on salaries.

Equine medicine doesn’t seem to be faring well, according to the study, which says this has been the sector most negatively affected by the recession, with declines in investment in the racing industry, rates of horse ownership, and demand for veterinary services. And, although the median salary for food animal–exclusive veterinarians is higher than median salaries for veterinarians in other areas of private practice—$103,000 in 2009—the number of veterinarians in this field has started to decline.

An area the committee cited for potential growth for veterinarians was that of wildlife and ecosystem health, particularly as it relates to the multidisciplinary field of one health. Veterinary expertise will be needed to address the intertwined problems of urban food security, intensification of livestock production, and environmental health in the developing world, the authors point out.

The committee also examined the current and future capacity of universities and colleges to provide sufficient numbers of adequately trained veterinarians in specific fields and identified training needs relative to the demand for expertise in these areas.

Committee members noted that the consequences of potential increases in student enrollment would be felt by the veterinary schools themselves, which have inadequate numbers of clinical faculty, specialists, and others needed to train future practitioners. The committee added that the decade-long decline in funding of education and research has jeopardized the profession’s future capacity to serve societal needs.

AVMA President René A. Carlson, responding to the report in a press release, said, “Veterinary medicine has never been stronger in terms of its impact on all of society, and that includes both animal and human health.

“As society has changed—and as our world population has grown—veterinary medicine has been presented with challenges on a global scale, and this report highlights many of the issues that the AVMA and many other veterinary organizations have been addressing for some time now. The National Academies report underscores some of the challenges that we face and, perhaps more importantly, that we must work to address, in order to position veterinary medicine for an even stronger future.”

The committee members were Mark Pauly, PhD, and Dr. Alan Kelly, University of Pennsylvania; Drs. Val R. Beasley and Gay Y. Miller, University of Illinois; Dr. Sheila W. Allen, University of Georgia; Dr. Bonnie J. Buntain, University of Calgary; Dr. Henry E. Childers, Cranston Animal Hospital; Gary Cockerell, Cockerell Alliances; Dr. Harold J. Davis, retired from Amgen Inc.; Malcolm Getz, PhD, Vanderbilt University; Dr. Tracey McNamara, Western University of Health Sciences; Dr. Bennie I. Osburn, University of California-Davis; Dr. Fred W. Quimby, retired from Rockefeller University; and Dr. Stephen F. Sutherland, Pfizer Animal Health.