Help Wanted: Rural Veterinarians

The following commentary does not necessarily reflect the views of AgWeb or Farm Journal. The opinions expressed below are the author's own.

The challenge of meeting ever-growing global food requirements, while protecting public health and animal welfare, means greater need for food-animal veterinarians. However, the dream of becoming a veterinarian has become less attainable due to the rising cost of education.

While employment opportunities remain abundant, the number of applicants per vet-school seat has declined in recent years, creating concern that financial issues eventually could contribute to a shortage of DVM graduates. Compounding the issue, many new vet-school graduates face high levels of student debt, averaging $138,000 in 2017 according to the American Veterinary Medical Associaiton (AVMA). To address that debt, some young veterinarians feel pressured to pursue the highest starting salaries, often in urban practices, rather than building careers in food-animal medicine in rural areas where they are most needed.

The USDA’s Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program (VMLRP) provides up to $25,000 each year towards qualified educational loans of eligible veterinarians who agree to serve in a designated veterinarian shortage situation for a period of three years. The program certainly helps, but cannot solve the problem by itself. According to information from the California Farm Bureau Federation, the USDA has awarded three-year contracts to 388 licensed veterinarians practicing in 45 states since 2010. California has submitted 26 nominations since 2013, with four awards issued. Multiple counties in California, identified as qualified shortage areas for several years, have not attracted practitioners through the VMLRP.

In a recent study from Merck Animal Health and the AVMA, veterinarians rated high student debt as their top concern, with 67 percent rating it as a critically important issue. Following student debt, respondents reported the other most serious issues facing young professionals today are stress levels, reported by 53 percent, and suicides rates, reported by 52 percent. Poor mental health is closely associated with the stresses of professional life –excessive work hours, poor work-life balance and student debt.

The study indicates, for example, that practice owners, on average, have higher levels of wellness and job satisfaction than associates.

Lead researcher Linda Lord, PhD, DVM, with Merck Animal Health, says the study results indicate 5.3% of veterinarians suffer from serious psychological distress, which is in line with the general population. However, when segmenting the data by age, younger veterinarians are more likely to experience problems. In this study, 8.6% of veterinarians between 18 and 34 years of age and 9.1% of those between 35 and 45 years old experience psychological distress. Among veterinarians between 55 and 64 years of age and those 65 or older, those numbers drop to 2.8% and 0.7% respectively.

For more on the veterinarian wellness study from Merck and AVMA, read “In Pursuit of Wellness” from BovineVetOnline.com.

Fortunately, universities and veterinary organizations have recognized these challenges and are working to address them with students and young practitioners. AVMA recently launched a new website, MyVeterinaryLife.com, to help guide veterinary students and early career veterinarians with the transition from veterinary school to their professional careers. The site organizes information into three career stages: "Current Student," "New Veterinarian" and "Rising Professional." Visitors can select the stage that applies to them, and then access relevant resources in three categories: "Your Career," "Your Financial Health" and "Your Wellbeing."

Also, AVMA will, on Thursday, July 26 (sorry for the short notice), present a “Lead and Learn” webinar on personal finances for veterinarians. The webinar begins at 10AM Central and registration is available online.

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