2010: Predictions for veterinary medicine


Workforce, economy, welfare rank as top issues this year, leaders predict.

National Report — If veterinary leaders are correct, 2010 will be marked by great change. DVM Newsmagazine asked seven leaders in the veterinary market to offer predictions for the top issues facing veterinarians next year. From practice economics to pressures on agriculture, the issues are broad, but their influence on the profession remains critically important.

Watch workforce trends

Dr. W. Ron DeHaven, executive vice president of the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), says he's focused on two issues for 2010 — education and workforce.

The two issues go hand-in-hand, he says, since increased capacity and efficiency at veterinary colleges are key to increasing the veterinary workforce.

A new consortium of leaders brainstorming a path for veterinary education could be a "major step relative to the future of veterinary education." The consortium, called the North American Veterinary Medical Education Consortium (NAVMEC), has a series of nationwide discussions slated in 2010.

Changes to the current education model can't come too soon, DeHaven says, since some areas of the country are struggling to find enough veterinarians to meet the demand. Veterinary technicians will take on a greater role in many practices in 2010, he predicts, referencing a soon-to-be-published paper from the AVMA on the economics of technician use and a growing trend in that area.

Advocacy is part of the overall plan, especially with more public debate about animal-health issues like livestock housing, DeHaven says.

"There are more allowances for the public to make decisions, like with farm-animal welfare, and the AVMA is watching those," he says. "We're not convinced an uneducated public is best to make those decisions."

It's not business as usual

"Veterinarians will need to improve their business skills starting now," says Karen Felsted, DVM, CPA, MS, CVPM, CEO of the National Commission on Veterinary Economic Issues.

The economic climate is far different than that of just a few years ago. The average number of transactions is flat or down, as are the numbers of new clients and active clients. And these trends started before the recession. "Even worse, we can't count on fee increases to fund our growth anymore. There was a time when we undercharged for what we did, and I'm sure some practices still are. But there have been unbelievable fee increases in the past five or six years: 30 percent or more in years where inflation was just 6 percent," Felsted says.

"Student debt will have a long-term impact, too. Younger veterinarians will need to work in practices where they can make enough money to pay those loans. A practice needs to be productive with a structure in place so young doctors can produce more.

"The silver lining of all this is that you're going to own and work in a much more profitable practice in the future. You'll increase the practice value, and when one of these downturns comes again, you'll be better prepared."

Taking a message to consumers

"Organizations like ours will need to provide a coaching and supportive role in terms of not only data, but also coping strategies and new ways to provide value to pet owners," says Dr. John Tait, president of the American Animal Hospital Association.

The association is airing commercials on Animal Planet this month during the Puppy Bowl, a program that runs simultaneously during the Super Bowl. So, what's the play? Encourage pet owners to see their veterinarian.

"Life balance is another big issue," he says. "We're getting our message out to students and new graduates with information on multi-owner practice models, managing debt out of school, and nontraditional career paths and how they affect a doctor's family life and lifestyle.

Reinventing veterinary education

If you ask Dr. Marguerite Pappaioanou, 2010 will be a monumental year for veterinary medical education.

In spite of last year's hard times, there's a bright future for veterinary education, says Pappaioanou, executive director of the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges.

"Economic limitations often bring out the best in finding new ways to do things," Pappaioanou says. "I think in general there's great optimism, but it's coupled with concern over what is really going to happen with the colleges and their programs next year."

Despite withering state funding, help might be on its way in other areas, like a recent federal move to increase pay for government workers and support for more student loan repayment programs. More veterinarians may start to gravitate toward rural and government work because the money is improving as a result of what Pappaioanou calls an "agricultural revolution."

Additionally, veterinary medicine is gaining long-deserved recognition from other health professions for its continuing role and contributions to public health, she says.

The future of equine research

"We want to start researching specific equine diseases that concern our members," says Dr. Nat White, president of the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP). "We're not producing enough researchers who can devote their careers to equine science, because there's inadequate funding. We want to increase funding from horse owners to complete research on medical problems."

In fact, the AAEP Foundation recently surveyed members about what equine conditions should be investigated.

"Part of that future research involves medications used in competitions, racing and other types of performance. We're concerned about the level of owner-driven requests for unnecessary medications used to enhance performance, and we want to make sure treatments, drugs and supplements are in the best interests of the horse."

Animal welfare issues were hotly debated in 2009, and they will trot right into 2010, White adds.

"Horse welfare will also continue to be a big issue for AAEP, especially the unwanted horse problem. Legislation in Congress to prohibit transport of horses for slaughter out of the country could add another 100,000 unwanted horses annually. The rescue organizations just don't have the capacity to handle the large number of unwanted horses."

Interesting times on Capitol Hill

Dr. Mark Lutschaunig, director of AVMA's Governmental Relations Division says 2010 will be marked with a lots of new legislation impacting animal health. "... And we'll see more of this over the next three years under the Obama administration. This will be an interesting year," he says.

Perhaps the biggest two items in the hands of legislators are House Resolution 2999, a bill aimed at helping veterinary schools increase capacity for the sake of public health, and House Resolution 3519/Senate Bill 1709, dubbed the veterinary services investment act. This act would allow states to create programs to address areas of veterinary services shortages by assisting practitioners in shortage areas with grants for new equipment and other necessities.

Slated for 2010 is also a veterinary loan repayment program brought about by the passage of the Veterinary Medical Service Act. About $10 million has been appropriated to the program.

AVMA is also concerned there may be a push to limit certain classes of antibiotics.

Taking the lead

With animal welfare predicted to reign as the top debate in 2010, Dr. Robert Smith of Stillwater, Okla., is on the front lines. As president of Western Veterinary Conference and a leading voice for bovine practitioners, Smith says that food-animal veterinarians are keenly aware of the importance of animal welfare and food safety.

"Certainly the animal welfare issue has been in the forefront in recent years and will be more important in the future for us to address," he says. "It provides veterinarians an opportunity to be a leader in this area, and we should be. I think we've got a good start on that, and we just need to continue our efforts."

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