Prime issue for veterinary technicians: Underutilization

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Updated Nov. 7, 2018

Veterinary technicians in practice continue to struggle with low pay, compassion fatigue, and burnout as well as a lack of recognition and opportunities for career advancement, according to results from the 2016 National Association of Veterinary Technicians in America survey.

"They are working 50 hours a week, working so hard to make ends meet. A third of techs in the survey had two or three jobs. We're all going to burn out at that level," said Heather Prendergast, co-leader of the Veterinary Nurse Initiative, during this year's Banfield Summit, held Sept. 10-11 in Portland, Oregon. The Veterinary Nurse Initiative seeks to unite veterinary technicians under a single title—registered veterinary nurse—and push for uniform credentialing requirements and a uniform definition of scope of practice. (See story, "What's in a name?")

Dr. Aja addresses attendees of Banfield Summit
Dr. Daniel Aja, senior vice president and chief medical officer for Banfield Pet Hospital, said during this year's Banfield Summit, held Sept. 10-11 in Portland, Oregon, that his company has taken steps to further differentiate between veterinary technicians and assistants. Banfield employs about 1,500 veterinary technicians. (Courtesy of Banfield Pet Hospital)

Prendergast continued, "The value of credentialing is so varied among states, but when there's no pay difference between on-the-job(–trained) or credentialed techs, why go to school and get a $30,000 loan and get paid the same amount as the assistant at $15 an hour?"

According to the survey's authors, some of the challenges for technicians have contributed to technicians leaving the profession. When asked how satisfied technicians were in their position, about half (51 percent) said they are very satisfied with their career and will stay in veterinary technology. Over half (56.7 percent) had changed their place of employment within the first five years in veterinary technology.

Unionization is a way of going after the issues differently than the initiative, said Ken Yagi, co-leader of the VNI, in reference to a few hundred employees at VCA and BluePearl clinics who voted to unionize this past year (see JAVMA, Sept. 1, 2018). He asked, "Why did we have to come down this road that there are such big issues going on? How did we come to this? Why did this happen?"

Kara Burns, president of NAVTA, points to underutilization of veterinary technicians as a major issue.

Range of usage of veterinary technicians/nurses (infographic) - Source: Veterinary Nurses Initiative

"What use is a credential if they're not being used?" she said. "This goes hand in hand with the VNI. We need to crack this nut sooner than later, or we're not going to have many vet techs left. For me, it's the general practices where we can get proper use of techs. No disrespect, but there shouldn't be the 'I can train them on the job' mentality."

Dr. Daniel Aja, senior vice president and chief medical officer for Banfield Pet Hospital, said at the summit that one of the areas where his company has failed in the past was with veterinary technicians.

To rectify that, Banfield, which employs about 1,500 veterinary technicians, has taken steps to further differentiate between veterinary technicians and assistants, including pulling veterinary technician badges off technicians who were not credentialed. The company this spring increased the hourly pay of all technicians, tripled their continuing education allowance, and opened the company's conference partnership program to veterinary technicians. Through the program, veterinarians and veterinary technicians can apply to attend a national partner conference, and Banfield will pay for their airfare and hotel stay.

Dr. Aja noted that turnover of technicians was at 40 percent annually a few years ago, and now it is at 16 percent.

"But this doesn't solve the broader issue. What is the root cause of the issue? Why aren't they being used like they should?" Dr. Aja asked. "Vets are getting in the way. (Veterinary technicians) are not being used. They are glorified pet holders. (Not wanting to pay more) money is part of it, but they also want to be involved and are not being given a chance. The other is lack of respect. How do we talk about techs? Do people know about their education?"

Dr. Aja said Banfield is rolling out a pilot program this year that aims to use veterinary technicians more extensively, within the limits of their degree. The company is also training veterinarians to no longer do 30 tasks that veterinary technicians should be doing and that fit within most state guidelines for veterinary technicians.

"We are a proud supporter of the Vet Nurse Initiative. What we have to do throughout the profession is drive a shift. We need all of us together to do it. It's the right thing to do, not the easy thing to do," Dr. Aja said.

See a summary of state laws on veterinary technician duties.

Related JAVMA content:

What's in a name?

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the title for Kara Burns.