Economics, academics and welfare: DVMs face changes


Profession continues its evolution, remains strong despite uncertainty and changes.

NATIONAL REPORT — With a floundering economy, changes in small-business practices and ever-evolving social consciousness, the veterinary profession, like most, is in a state of uncertainty.

MONEY MATTERS: The future of the veterinary profession is intertwined with the economy in more ways than one. Federal taxes for health-care programs and deficit spending mean less money available for student-loan repayment and work-force shortage programs.

Numerous challenges will present themselves in terms of financing education and work-force initiatives in the next few years, according to veterinary experts.

Business, academia, animal welfare and food-animal medicine are a few of the many areas leaders in the profession are watching.


"This year or next, there is going to be some type of health-care reform," says Dr. Mark Lutschaunig, director of the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) Government Relations Division (GRD).

"It will definitely impact our members who are small-business owners. How it will impact them is unknown."

In addition to health-care reform, President Obama's plan to cut the deficit in half will leave its mark.

"It means more taxes or cuts in revenue," Lutschaunig says. "Changes in taxes impact our members individually and small business collectively."

Revenue cuts mean less money for government-funded initiatives, such as student-loan repayment and work-force shortages.

"Schools are not graduating enough veterinarians, and they are at capacity; and then there is student debt," Lutschaunig says. "Right now, I don't think that's going to change. If anything, it's going to continue to rise. Veterinary schools have to figure out how to educate students in different ways."

And they are, according to Dr. Marguerite Pappaioanou. executive director of the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges (AAVMC).


"Colleges are looking at whatever they can do to reduce the cost of education," she says. "Distance learning, virtual learning, sharing faculty are all being explored right now."

Another challenge is finding faculty with the expertise in specific areas to educate tomorrow's veterinary students.

Often these potential professors open up their own specialty practices, where salaries are much higher.

"What we are looking at now is some colleges hooking up with specialty hospitals and whether some of these specialists are interested in doing clinical rotation or becoming faculty at universities."

One such example of a successful pairing is the newly opened Chicago Center for Veterinary Medicine.

Although funding shortages for state-run veterinary schools are nothing new, the circumstances are becoming more strained.

"Our colleges are seeing cuts in budgets anywhere from 5 percent to 20 percent," Pappaioanou says.

"Some are being asked to find millions of dollars to give back to the university. There are freezes on hirings, furloughs and they have been cutting staff. In that backdrop, it's very difficult to say what is going to happen."

In addition to business ownership and education, the recession also will have an impact on other areas of veterinary medicine, such as animal welfare.

Animal welfare

External influences impacting animal welfare include agendas and motivations of special-interest groups, demands for "gold standard" vs. "gradual improvement" changes in animal care and balancing public expectations with public willingness to accept higher costs, according to Gail C. Golab, PhD, DVM, MACVSc, director of the AVMA Animal Welfare Division.

"Although not every animal-welfare improvement will result in an increased cost of care, many will," she says. "The public's willingness to allow such costs to be passed on to them will affect what happens in terms of animal welfare. If the public is willing to bear those costs, then changes may be made. If the public is not willing to bear those costs, they likely will not. Or, if such changes are mandated by law, animal-use facilities may move outside U.S. borders where requirements for animal care are less stringent or less costly."

In addition, the way the profession itself examines welfare issues is changing and will continue to change over the next several years, in part due to more and more females entering the profession.

"Although animal well-being has always been of utmost priority for the veterinary profession, the increasing prominence of females in the profession suggests that the emphasis placed on animal welfare will continue to grow even further," Golab says.

To do this scientifically, animal welfare-related education needs to become an integral part of the veterinary curriculum, she says.

Increased "speciesization" of the profession means communication between segments of the profession is needed to reduce misunderstandings regarding what constitutes "good welfare."

It also means as veterinarians become more involved in debates regarding what constitutes "good welfare," they also will become more aware of agendas and motivations behind approaches of various stakeholder groups, Golab hopes.

And veterinarians will need to better "sell" information to a less science-literate public.

On the state level, veterinarians are seeing a lot of animal-welfare initiatives, such as bans on tail docking in cattle and gestational crates for sows, and Lutschaunig warns that veterinarians are going to have to get more involved. "If we are doing something legislatively, is it the right thing to do?" he asks. "Is there science to support it? We have to make sure we are doing the right thing for the animals."

Food-animal medicine

It's an issue Dr. Gatz Riddell, executive director of the American Association of Bovine Practitioners (AABP), has to contend with as well.

"Animal-welfare issues have come to the forefront by video tapes taken of handling that is deplorable and not characteristic of how animals are handled on farms today," Riddell says. "They are presented as common practice, and that's simply not true."

Veterinarians continuously work with clients to discuss the fact that cattle owners do take very good care of their animals and will continue to do so.

"The conditions shown on those tapes really are deplorable and it's regrettable," he says. "The veterinarian is going to be very important in communicating between industry and the consumer, not only because of our credibility but our ability to interact with both sides."

Along with animal-welfare issues, food-animal veterinarians also face a much-documented shortage of manpower.

Eventually that shortage will spread from food-animal and public health to small-animal practice, experts say.

"Even as we see our way through this recession, the ramifications of these tough economic times are still to come," Lutschaunig predicts.

Leaders speak out

"The breadth of our education and professional interests equips veterinarians to find solutions to problems and pave the way for new discovery perhaps more so than any other profession. We have become adept at meeting new and unique challenges throughout the years because of our unique multispecies education and the diversity of disciplines within the profession. Our responsibilities run the gamut from providing sophisticated care for our pets to ensuring that America continues to have the safest, most affordable and abundant food supply in the world."


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