Blog: Critics attack on COE is a solution in search of a problem


A look at the facts reveals a different picture of veterinary school accreditation than whats being presented.

Since 1981 the AVMA's Council on Education (COE) has approved a total of three new veterinary colleges in the United States. That's right: three new veterinary schools in 33 years, for an average of one new school every 11 years. Only 27 of America's 50 states have a veterinary college, barely more than half. This is hardly a flood of new schools, yet that's not the impression one gathers from the small band of critics challenging the COE and calling on the U.S. Department of Education to create a new agency to oversee veterinary education in the United States.

In this same 33-year time span, veterinary spending and visits in the United States have surged, the American pet population has exploded (although more than half still fail to seek regular veterinary care) and the total pet industry approaches annual revenues in the neighborhood of $60 billion. Moreover, the growth in numbers of veterinarians has never kept up with the growth in human population in the United States.

So what is the nature of the criticism of the COE supposedly warranting a wholesale replacement by a new federal agency? Let's examine the critique by the leading spokesman, former Dean Robert Marshak of the University of Pennsylvania College of Veterinary Medicine, from a statement circulated through a University of Nebraska list-serve:

I believe that the Council as presently constituted has clearly failed to act in the best interests of the profession by accrediting schools that don't meet the COE's 11 published standards-it is also quite clear that there has been a deliberate weakening of some standards in an apparent attempt to justify, retrospectively, the accreditation of these substandard schools. The unfortunate results of these actions include:

> The devaluation of the DVM/VMD degrees.

> The proliferation of more substandard veterinary schools.

> The production of increasingly large numbers of minimally educated entry-level graduates in a finite and increasingly competitive job market, a situation that will have profound long-term negative effects on the economic status of practitioners in private practice.

> The ultimate loss of our standing and prestige among the other health professions and in the eyes of the society we serve.

> Destroying America's status as the gold standard of veterinary medical education.

The problem is that these generic criticisms from an academic veteran surprisingly lack any supporting data or evidence. They are broad generalizations designed to create the impression, however unfounded, that a legion of unqualified veterinarians are marching onto the playing field, year after year, threatening the quality of pet healthcare throughout America.

Yet actual evidence we have is that the school Dr. Marshak repeatedly singles out, Western University College of Veterinary Medicine, has a graduate passing rate on the national licensing examination (NAVLE) of two points higher than the national average. There is no evidence of veterinary board complaints or problems with these so-called “minimally educated entry-level” graduates, nor any uptick in consumer complaints or incidents of veterinary negligence. And you can be sure that if such evidence existed, COE's critics would blast it out for broad public consumption.

It's easy to toss out words like conflict of interest or lax oversight, but the facts are the COE represents thousands of hours of uncompensated volunteer work by academics, veterinarians and members of the public, and the slow pace of new accreditations suggests one conclusion: the COE is methodical, cautious and gets it right.

When the rhetoric is stripped away, this boils down to a small minority's issue with distributive clinical training. There are too many examples from human medicine of the value of distributive clinical training to lend any credence to the critics' charge that the COE must be replaced or else veterinary education in America is doomed. What we have is a theoretical solution in search of a problem, and that's never good policy to support radical change.

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Mark Cushing, JD, is founding partner of the Animal Policy Group, providing government relations and strategic services for various animal health, veterinary and educational interests. He maintains offices in Portland, Ore., and Washington, D.C., and is a frequent speaker at veterinary conferences.

The Veterinary Policy Notes blog on helps veterinarians and other animal health professionals keep abreast of the growing number of issues, political challenges and regulatory initiatives affecting the veterinary profession, animal health industry and animal welfare movement. The views and opinions presented are those of the author.

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