Veterinary leaders concentrate on technician underutilization

Working group proposed to gather stakeholders, further discuss issues
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Veterinary technicians across the U.S. have spoken, and the AVMA has heard them.

The AVMA House of Delegates approved a recommendation that the AVMA Board of Directors consider convening a working group to design a plan to improve veterinary technician utilization and report back to the HOD within one year. The HOD took the action during its regular winter session, Jan. 11-12, held in conjunction with the AVMA Veterinary Leadership Conference in Chicago.

The issue of underutilization was the main topic during the HOD's Veterinary Information Forum and sparked discussion on how to encourage the consistent use of credentialed veterinary technicians as part of a health care team, the lack of recognition for technicians, the differences between employees trained on the job and credentialed technicians, and the high turnover rates, low job satisfaction, and low wages for technicians.

Dr. Donlin and Kara Burns
Dr. Janet Donlin, AVMA CEO and a former veterinary technician, and Kara Burns, immediate past president of the National Association of Veterinary Technicians in America, at the House of Delegates regular winter session in Chicago (Photos by Sara Beugen/Shoot My Events)

Dr. Rebecca Stinson-Dixon, the American Association of Equine Practitioners alternate delegate, suggested the working group during a reference committee session because not all parties were at the table, "quite literally in that environment," and delegates didn't have enough information, she said in an interview with JAVMA News.

"A working group can call on a lot more resources, and we can reach out to veterinary technician groups, education leadership, and veterinary practitioners (to discuss underutilization). Those groups aren't necessarily invited (in HOD sessions). In our role, that would allow (the AVMA) to get a better handle on the places we can have an influence," Dr. Stinson-Dixon said.

The recommendation was sent to the Board, and it will be at the Board's discretion whether the working group is formed.

In the field

Allison Pierce, a certified veterinary technician, hopes to become a registered veterinary nurse, but she is currently looking into other careers.

"I really don't want to jump into the human side of medicine, but I almost feel like I have no choice," Pierce said during the HOD session. "Basically, our pay is not sustainable to live off of. (When) I graduated, I was being paid $11 an hour, and that is nothing. I was on Medicaid, (and) I had food stamps. I went to school for two years, and that was my pay. You cannot live on that; you cannot prepare for a future," Pierce said.

She added that she currently works at Banfield Pet Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, where her pay is now $19 an hour, which is better, but still not sustainable long-term.

From a veterinarian perspective, the use of technicians is obvious.

"I have seen firsthand the benefit of having a licensed veterinary technician," said Dr. Andrew Justin Toth, an alternate delegate for Georgia and owner of Dallas Highway Animal Hospital, during the HOD session. "I practice with a philosophy now that I only do what the (veterinary) degree requires. If it does not require a (veterinary) degree, I try to delegate. If you want to hear a laugh at the clinic, if a die-hard client says, 'I want to make sure Dr. Toth draws the blood.' The staff says, 'No, you don't.'

"We have to get this information out to the trenches. We need to make sure private practice sees the benefit of utilizing technicians. If they do, it will improve their work–life balance. It will improve their bottom line. It will improve their cash flow, and what does that do? It leaves more money to compensate people properly," Dr. Toth said.

Other HOD delegates brought up that some veterinarians do not hire or utilize their technicians because of a lack of knowledge as to what job duties can legally be performed by credentialed technicians.

Dr. Ylander at the podium
Dr. David M. Ylander, Nebraska delegate and member of the House Advisory Committee, put forth a recommendation to form a working group to design a plan to improve veterinary technician utilization and report back to the AVMA House of Delegates within one year.

But Kara Burns, immediate past president of the National Association of Veterinary Technicians in America, has a solution to that: "When (we) talk to our fellow colleagues, we say, 'Show your value.'"

Veterinary nurse initiative update

In 2016, NAVTA created the Veterinary Nurse Initiative to unite the profession under a single title, move to uniform credentialing requirements, and create a standard definition of scope of practice for veterinary technicians.

"It is more than just a name change," Burns said, during the HOD session. "We need to make practice acts standard."

Most states have laws that include a definition or even a scope of practice for veterinary technicians. Rebecca F. Wisch, associate editor and staff attorney at the Animal Legal and Historical Center at Michigan State University, said the following 14 states do not cover veterinary technicians in their laws: Alaska, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Kansas, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Utah, Vermont, and Wyoming. A map including all the veterinary practice acts can be found at MSU's Animal Legal and Historical Center website.

Erin Spencer addressing AVMA House of Delegates
Erin Spencer, newly elected president of NAVTA and a certified veterinary technician, speaks to the House of Delegates during its regular winter session, Jan. 11-12, held in conjunction with the AVMA Veterinary Leadership Conference in Chicago.

Currently, the Veterinary Nurse Initiative is "gaining momentum and spreading," said Kenichiro Yagi, president-elect of NAVTA and co-chair of the Veterinary Nurse Initiative, during an interview with JAVMA News. In 2018, NAVTA focused on making legislative changes in Ohio and Tennessee. This year, NAVTA plans to continue work in Ohio and focus on making changes to the practice acts in Indiana and Georgia.

Yagi points to Purdue University renaming its veterinary technology program as its veterinary nursing program as a big positive for the movement in Indiana. In addition, 40 associations, organizations, and people have come out in support of the Veterinary Nurse Initiative, including Kansas State University and the American Animal Hospital Association. Plus, three other programs have switched from veterinary technician to veterinary nurse.

A seat at the table

"It's exciting times," Yagi said. Veterinary technicians and NAVTA leaders attended the discussion during the HOD's Veterinary Information Forum.

"Our inclusion was great, but I think the bigger and more important piece was we were able to speak. I was able to address the HOD before any delegates, (which is) out of the norm," said Erin Spencer, newly elected NAVTA president and a certified veterinary technician. "It felt positive and that veterinarians realized that technicians can be a part of the conversation. It opened a door."

The AVMA also announced at the HOD session that it would continue to provide association management and other support services to NAVTA, which Spencer points to as another positive.

"NAVTA having AVMA as our association management group—it provides one less barrier for us to collaborate, make sure all of our voices are heard, and make sure the whole veterinary community is together," Spencer said.

The AVMA Veterinary Economics Division is also in the early stages of researching the role of technicians in practice.

"Our current surveys are not equipped to gather data on how exactly they are utilized, so we are in the process of reviewing how to better collect this data. Our goal is to have a set of new questions added to our Annual Practice Owner survey that will collect information, which will allow the team to engage in more insightful analysis," said Matthew J. Salois, PhD, chief economist at the AVMA.

"AVMA members can be change leaders," Spencer said during the HOD session. "We will thrive together."

Related JAVMA content:

What's in a name? (Nov. 15, 2018)

Prime issue for veterinary technicians: Underutilization (Nov. 15, 2018)

Veterinary technicians add specialty in diagnostic imaging (Oct. 01, 2018)

Veterinary technicians, other clinic staff join unions (Sept. 01, 2018)

NAVTA ready to start veterinary nurse effort (July 01, 2017)

Technicians pushing for new name: veterinary nurse (April 15, 2016)