Economics division analyzes problems, causes

Published on September 17, 2014
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With the AVMA Veterinary Economics Division now fully staffed, veterinarians can expect answers to some of their biggest concerns—with the help of data veterinarians themselves will provide.

The Veterinary Economics Division was created in 2011 by the AVMA Board of Directors as part of an effort to study perceived economic problems throughout the veterinary profession and, if verified, provide strategies to resolve them.

Bridgette Bain, PhD, is the statistical data analyst for the division. Previously, she conducted economic data analysis research at the University of New Orleans, where she earned a doctorate in financial economics. According to Dr. Bain, the division has the potential for making waves in the veterinary world by improving market efficiency.

“I really think we could have a great impact because we have all this valuable data that has not been thoroughly analyzed nor looked at from the perspective that we’ve been doing,” Dr. Bain said. “I think everybody’s starting to come on board with us as our work continues to reach broader audiences and engenders awareness.”

Drs. Dicks, Bain, and Knippenberg
Michael Dicks, PhD (center), director of the AVMA Veterinary Economics Division, with staff members Bridgette Bain, PhD, and Ross Knippenberg, PhD. (Photo by R. Scott Nolen)

The division’s current projects include the workforce model, which pools several variables to project the supply of and demand for veterinary services in the U.S. Three other projects are designed to examine practice profitability and veterinarian employment.

An elasticity study will determine the effects of the price of veterinary services and customer disposable income on the demand for veterinary services. An employment study will look at how many veterinarians have been unemployed or underemployed and for how long, in addition to whether their status is temporary or permanent and why. Finally, a capacity study will determine differences in characteristics between veterinary practices with excess capacity and those operating at full capacity.

The division’s main goal for the AVMA Economic Summit, Oct. 28 in Chicago, is to present preliminary results of its projects in the hope of illustrating the importance of gathering accurate data and providing unbiased analysis, Dr. Bain said.

Despite the division’s progress over the past year, it is still finding it challenging to get the economic data’s meaning across to veterinarians. According to Ross Knippenberg, PhD, the economic analyst in the division and the newest addition to the team, the staff works to help veterinarians understand “what exactly are the market forces that are influencing the conversation in the veterinary world.” Dr. Knippenberg, who received a doctorate in economics at the University of Colorado-Boulder in 2014, said he respects what veterinarians do and knows a few of the unique labor market issues that they face.

“Our goal, really, is to inform the veterinarian community—to get them the facts they need to make informed decisions. That’s where the Veterinary Econ­omics Division comes in,” Dr. Knippenberg said. “We’re trying to bring all of the information together so that people can have a really clear picture of what’s going on.”

The division lacks information from a variety of veterinary demographic subgroups as a result of past data collection practices. According to division director Michael Dicks, PhD, one impediment has been the way previous data were collected—studies in the past, he says, have not “provided information that is actionable.”

The veterinary community’s lack of confidence in preliminary study results has been an issue arising largely from veterinarians thinking the conclusions are not applicable to their geographic regions. According to Dr. Dicks, however, the problem lies not in the analyzed data but in the gaps in the data—only one in five veterinarians responds to the division’s surveys, which could leave entire regions undocumented.

“This is the most oversurveyed and underinformed profession I’ve ever been in. I don’t want to know just what the problem is, I want to know what caused the problem,” Dr. Dicks said. “The studies in the past didn’t do that. They just measured the problem.”

The number one thing veterinarians can do to help their community, according to Dr. Dicks, is to work together.

“The way that they can help us is just to keep an open mind and engage us,” Dr. Dicks said. To him, the division’s goal is to produce hard facts that do not attempt to steer veterinarians toward any one opinion.

“It’s a process, and we have to learn to trust each other and understand that we’re both in it for the same reason,” Dr. Dicks said. “We want to see the betterment of the profession.”

Reedhima Mandlik is a third-year journalism and psychology major at Northwestern University and was a 2014 summer intern with JAVMA News.