Study captures pandemic’s impact on veterinary profession

Other factors also found to affect well-being of veterinarians, support staff members

A study has found that the percentage of veterinarians with serious psychological distress increased to 9.7% in fall 2021, compared with 6.4% in fall 2019, and regression analysis suggests that this change was an effect of the COVID-19 pandemic.

On Jan. 18 at the 2022 Veterinary Meeting & Expo in Orlando, Florida, Merck Animal Health released findings from its third well-being study, conducted by Brakke Consulting Inc. in collaboration with the AVMA to examine the well-being and mental health of U.S. veterinarians. The Merck study has been conducted every other year since 2017. For the first time, the study also included responses from veterinary technicians and other support staff members.

“The past two years have been extremely challenging for veterinarians and their dedicated staff, and we are very grateful to everyone who contributed to this important study, which gives us a deeper look into what our colleagues are experiencing,” said Dr. José Arce, AVMA president, in an announcement. “The AVMA has dedicated itself to creating meaningful resources to help safeguard wellbeing, and this new research will further inform and support our vital, ongoing work in this critical area. We want our members to know that the AVMA hears them and is there to support them, whether it’s resources to help veterinarians manage their practices in this new environment, such as telehealth, or wellbeing resources to help veterinarians and their teams cope with stress.”

Merck Animal Health made a $100,000 donation in support of the AVMA’s well-being resources, as the company did in conjunction with the 2017 and 2019 studies.

“We are pleased to partner with Merck Animal Health on this important work during a time of unprecedented challenge for health care professionals,” said Jen Brandt, PhD, AVMA director of member well-being and diversity initiatives, in the announcement. “Given this critical need, the AVMA continues to develop and prioritize resources dedicated to supporting the wellbeing of veterinarians and staff, including our new ‘Train-the-Trainer’ workshop that empowers veterinary professionals to become educators and share valuable strategies to promote workplace wellbeing; as well as a workplace wellbeing certificate program, assessment tools, podcasts, webinars, self-care strategies and how and where to get help.”

In the 2021 well-being study, veterinarians were asked to rate a list of issues as critically or moderately important. The top five were as follows: stress levels of veterinarians and staff members, 92%; shortage of qualified support staff members, 91%; high levels of educational debt, 88%; the suicide rate among veterinarians, 88%; and shortage of veterinarians, 82%.

Regarding the impact of the pandemic, 81% of staff members and 67% of veterinarians said their practice was short-handed at times. Furthermore, 63% of staff members and 61% of veterinarians said their job increased their exposure to COVID-19, and 51% of staff members and 46% of veterinarians said they worked longer hours than they usually would have.

The percentage of staff members with serious psychological distress was 18.1%, compared with 9.7% of veterinarians. Half of staff respondents and 31% of veterinarians had high burnout.

Only a third of distressed veterinarians had a healthy method for dealing with stress, compared with 81% of nondistressed veterinarians. Serious psychological distress was more common in veterinarians who worked excessive hours. Veterinarians who did not report distress spent more time on healthy activities outside of work, such as socializing with family and friends. Serious psychological distress was lower in veterinarians with a financial planner.

The study findings suggest that employers should acknowledge that low well-being and mental distress exist in the profession and encourage team members to address these problems; provide mental health insurance coverage, an employee assistance program, or both; and provide a work climate that fosters well-being and mental health. Some elements of a healthy work environment are a strong sense of belonging to a team, a high degree of trust in the organization, candid and open communications among team members, and sufficient time to provide high-quality patient care.

Dr. Christine Royal, Merck Animal Health’s associate vice president for U.S. companion animal and equine professional services, said in the announcement: “Now more than ever, it is clear that veterinary practitioners and their staff play an essential role caring for the animals we love and maintaining the human-animal bond. And at Merck Animal Health, we have unconditional respect for veterinary professionals and their dedicated service, particularly during these unconventional times.”

She continued, “We are committed to protecting the health and welfare of veterinary professionals and ensuring we build a robust and engaged profession for the future, with opportunities such as scholarship funding, wellbeing webinars, networking opportunities and much more.”

The third Merck well-being study was conducted in September and October 2021 by Brakke among a nationally representative sample of 2,495 veterinarians in the U.S., both practitioners and nonpractitioners. In the 2021 study, practitioner respondents were asked to pass along a special link to full-time staff members across practice roles, and staff members returned a total of 448 completed questionnaires.

To learn more about Merck Animal Health's support of veterinary professionals and their mental well-being, visit www.merck-animal-health-usa.com/responsibility.

The AVMA’s well-being page offers information on events, training, continuing education, self-assessment and self-care tools, and other resources.

Veterinarians also can visit the Shanti Project, which has created the Veterinary Mental Health Initiative. The initiative offers group and individualized support online.

A version of this article appears in the March 1, 2022, print issue of JAVMA.