Producers warned about veterinarian shortage

Ontario Veterinary College Dean Jeff Wichtel meets with veterinary students on the main campus of the University of Guelph, otherwise known as “Barn 37”. (photo courtesy OVC)

If you have a sick animal, there’s no such thing as a “timely” veterinarian shortage.

But the current situation, which is seeing fewer veterinary service hours available and much more demand expected, is particularly worrisome. It’s raising caution flags in the veterinary sector, and has a leading veterinary educator searching for solutions.

Here’s the situation.

In Ontario, there are currently 130-140 Ontario practices seeking to hire a veterinarian. That’s three times the historic number.

Jeff Wichtel, dean of the Ontario Veterinary College, says it’s worse in some rural and remote areas, where veterinarians – particularly for livestock – are already in limited supply.

However, a perfect storm is escalating the situation.

The demands on existing veterinarians have grown, especially in the last 18 months.

Wichtel cites several reasons for the phenomenon.

First, if your veterinarian has a mixed practice, odds are he or she is dealing with an influx of new clients – millennials.

As a group, they are taking unprecedented care with their animals. They visit veterinarians much more than previous generations did.

“They have a very responsible approach to pet ownership, and their pets are one of the areas in which they’ve chosen to spend their money,” says Wichtel.

That’s been great for pets – and for veterinary practices’ bottom line. Across the board, veterinary practices’ revenues have increased by 10 percent in each of the past two years, which is also in keeping with the generally buoyant Ontario economy.

But these higher expectations have put a strain on a veterinary system that’s already short on time.

That’s especially true in livestock production, which will see new regulations governing veterinary oversight of antibiotic use come into effect next year.

As part of the Government of Canada’s move to promote the judicious use of antimicrobials, Health Canada is moving all medically-important antimicrobials (MIA) used in food production to the Prescription Drug List…Read More

Specifically, veterinary antibiotics that were previously available over the counter will now require prescriptions, as the industry takes steps to reduce antibiotic use and fight resistance. Prescriptions can’t be written unless the veterinarian has actually visited the farm to diagnose the situation. That means more work and more time on the road for veterinarians.

And yet another contributing factor to the shortage is the changing nature of the veterinary workforce. Research in the veterinary sector suggests that recent graduates typically devote about 1,500 hours annually to veterinary practice. That’s about 500 hours fewer than the industry has been accustomed to.

These graduates are also less interested in owning their own practice. Rather, they’ll work for a corporate practice that’s increasingly replacing retiring veterinarians’ private practices. Wichtel says it’s all about the drive towards a healthy work-life balance.

So the college, and indeed the entire veterinary sector, is weighing its options. Wichtel says data are being collated to try to determine if the increased demand for veterinarians is a typical, fluctuating cycle, or if it’s something longer term that demands new approaches.

The results of this analysis will help the college plan for future workforce needs.  However, because of the length of the four-year veterinary professional program, any action the college takes to enlarge enrolment won’t be felt immediately (OVC currently graduates 120 veterinarians a year).

Other options could be looked at, says Wichtel, such as offering incentives to help veterinarians locate in areas of greatest need, similar to the support medical doctors receive to practice in underserved areas.

Raising starting salaries, which have inched up and currently average around $75,000 a year, might also help, he says.

And yet another possibility is to increase recruitment from elsewhere.

Graduates with veterinary degrees from certain accredited overseas colleges are permitted to practice here, and more Canadians are studying veterinary medicine at these off-shore schools than ever before.

Canadian students graduating abroad have an average of twice as much debt as Ontario residents studying in Guelph. Wichtel says starting annual salaries may appeal to overseas-trained veterinarians, facing such a huge debt load.  In the US, where veterinary services are also under pressure, at least one US corporate practice owner is offering a debt relief program to its new associate veterinarians. Wichtel says that could work here as well.

Now, it’s not all gloom and doom. Despite the whirlwind the profession is in, Wichtel says the interest in veterinary science and medicine at OVC remains high. The college has 4-5 applicants for every available placement, and applications across all accredited veterinary colleges in Canada, including OVC, were up six per cent this year.

In the meantime, the college has invested heavily in research and curriculum development to help veterinary students graduate with a better understanding of the issues around work-life balance, and strategies to manage the competing priorities that come with being a veterinarian.

“There’s a lot of change in the profession, “ he says, “but fortunately many young people still have their hearts set on becoming veterinarians.”

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