Future veterinarians: a 25-year look ahead


Washington - Veterinarians fill top levels of national security, protect public health and command a unique skill set used to defend the nation's food supply. Yet these highly trained professionals aren't licensed to practice small-animal medicine.

WASHINGTON — Veterinarians fill top levels of national security, protect public health and command a unique skill set used to defend the nation's food supply. Yet these highly trained professionals aren't licensed to practice small-animal medicine.

Figure 1

The institution they attended didn't even teach the perspective.

It's a fictional scenario, but not far-fetched, according to a conceptual study recently released in the Journal of Veterinary Medical Education. Issued by the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges (AAVMC), the 42-page report titled "Envisioning the Future of Veterinary Medical Education" explores the profession's environment, using foresight technology to envision the future of academic veterinary medicine and the profession's role in society, up to 25 years ahead.

Its conclusions are clear. If major changes aren't made to balance and increase DVM output among various underserved modalities, the profession and society will be left with a deficiency of veterinarians in almost all professional areas.

Fixing the problem calls for a dramatic restructure of education within the nation's 28 veterinary institutions, the report says. A major proposal requires tracking licensure for veterinarians. Another would force colleges to forgo traditional curriculum and lean toward focus areas to become hubs for public health, diagnostics or large-animal medicine. By all accounts, implementation of such change requires extreme re-evaluation of an entrenched accreditation and licensure system.

Dr. Lance Perryman

The proposed broad transformations require thorough debate, experts say. This month, officials with AAVMC, which headlined the project, plan to meet with American Veterinary Medical Association leaders to discuss the report's implications. With help from corporate sponsors, the two groups pooled $600,000 to fund a veterinary workforce analysis by the National Academies of Sciences. Underway at presstime, the study aims to present an objective review of the veterinarian supply within all arenas, from companion-animal medicine to food-safety occupations. The data likely will be gleaned to bolster proposals in the foresight report's pages.

Officials within AVMA, which runs the accreditation system for veterinary institutions, did not return phone calls seeking comment on the report or the study's analysis. But Dr. Norman Willis, whose consulting firm conducted the project, says the long-range report simply encourages stakeholders to prepare for a range of possible futures.

"Forty-five recommendations came out of this study, but the fundamental proposal was for a modified system for veterinary education — a significant change from the present," says Willis, former chief veterinarian of Canada and president of Ontario-based Norm Willis Group. "Changes of this magnitude will take significant time. ... But right now, there are already opportunities that veterinarians cannot make a contribution to because of their skill set and deficiencies in numbers."

Exploring inequities

It's no secret that the country's increasingly female veterinary student body is disproportionately focused on small-animal medicine, creating a shortage within food-animal, public health and research arenas. The nation's 2,600 graduates entering the workforce each year aren't keeping pace with openings in virtually all job sectors, putting pressure on under-funded veterinary programs to add more DVM seats.

Dr. Bennie Osburn

Such deficiencies are largely anecdotal, but concrete data exposing the job market is expected to emanate from the National Academies work. Dr. Lance Perryman, AAVMC president and dean of Colorado State University's veterinary program, predicts the study will reveal a shortage of veterinarians in all areas, including small-animal practice.

Changes are necessary for veterinary medicine to remain relevant in the future. Yet huge hurdles exist to overhauling current accreditation, teaching and licensure systems, he says.

"Admission to veterinary schools are flat right now, and at the same time, academic veterinary medicine does not have the space, facilities and funding to educate the number of DVMs needed to meet society's needs," Perryman says. "Despite the obstacles, we need to buy into this concept of a focused educational experience and focused licensure. It will take some time and conversation, but I think all of these challenges can be met."

On the move

Dr. Bennie Osburn appears equally optimistic and eager to implement change. The dean of the University of California-Davis School of Veterinary Medicine plans to gently increase the program's tracking toward dairy practice. He notes the California Veterinary Medical Association is in talks with the state's regulatory board to define the possibility of limiting licensure and there's a push among The Regents of the University of California to fund a new veterinary school with a clinical focus near San Diego.

"We think focused programs and tracking is a good way to go," he says. "It allows us to put out a new graduate product that's better prepared to serve the industries we need outside of companion-animal practice. I think tracking veterinary programs as well as licensure is a logical step forward as long as we are assured there's a reasonable means of preparing individuals who want to make major steps in changing career directions."

Anticipated resistance

While the report's reception among veterinary leaders in academia has incited largely positive reactions, the concept of tracking licensure and limiting the current workforce's authority to certain areas isn't expected to bode well among DVMs.

While human medicine does not employ such licensure restrictions, regulatory boards and legal constraints have created an environment that facilitates educational tracking and specialization.

The concept might be a tough sell in veterinary medicine, but it's necessary to prepare for a future that's changing, Willis says.

"Making it so a veterinarian wouldn't be licensed in all fields is a major, major step," he says. "But veterinary medicine is at a transition point. Demands to lengthen the course of education create a problem concerning the student debt load and remuneration. Tracking licensure allows people to focus on a specific area and intensify their expertise as opposed to trying to cover everything. I truly believe that not making this change in this direction is going to hold the profession back."

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