The next wave of veterinarians


Learn what the new generation thinks of the challenges that await them.

Think back to when you were in veterinary school. Oh, those were the days. You were young and eager to take on the world of veterinary medicine. But you were scared, too. Would you find a job? Would you screw up a surgery? Despite these fears, you survived. However, as you settled into your first job, I'm sure there were bumps along the way.

I'm fortunate to be able to teach at veterinary schools each year. I get to sit down with students and talk to them about their concerns and what they want in a future job. Here's what I've learned: Our profession will be in good hands. In the 15 years I've been talking to students, I've learned that today's graduates have a solid grasp of what they need to do to be successful. They understand the importance of business management and want to find jobs that will challenge them medically and surgically, but also offer them a great quality of life.

For example, when I asked a student at the University of Florida what her greatest concern was, she said, "Finding a practice that's welcoming, offers me the things I need-plus some things I want-and gives me the opportunity to live the life I want." Another student said she was most concerned about balancing mentorship with autonomy, carrying a heavy debt load (currently more than $150,000), and juggling salary, housing costs, and children. Sound familiar? These are probably some of the same issues you struggled with-or continue to struggle with. Here's how you can help make new veterinarian's ride a smooth one.


The number one thing new graduates are looking for is a formal mentorship program. They're afraid you'll hire them and then go on vacation for three weeks, leaving them alone in the practice. And if you talk about mentorship in an interview, they're worried that it's just a gimmick to entice them into taking a job-with no follow-through once they're hired. One student said, I'm most scared of going into a practice that promises a mentorship but doesn't actually have a program-and I don't find out until I've started working there." Students hear horror stories from previous graduates who've experienced that exact situation. Today's students are becoming more savvy and will now ask prospective employers to produce mentorship program documents so that they can be sure a training program actually exists.

Having a mentorship program in place ensures you'll be there to guide your new associate toward success. As one student told me, "I know I'll make mistakes but that doesn't make it any less terrifying. That's why a mentorship is at the top of my must-have list.


When I visit students, I ask them to think back to hospitals where they've worked in the past. I ask them what those practices charged for hospitalization (just hospitalization-no injections, fluids, or other services) for a 40-pound dog for 24 hours. I get responses anywhere from $15 to $120. Then I ask if these practices charged a "daily doctor professional care" fee. This is a charge for the doctor's time to evaluate a hospitalized patient and determine its course of treatment-an in-hospital exam fee, if you will.

Many of the students tell me their practices never charged this fee. I then ask what the practices charged for a comprehensive physical exam on a sick patient. Often this fee is higher than the hospitalization charge. So a practice might charge $25 for hospitalization, nothing for daily doctor care, and $45 for a comprehensive physical exam. In other words, the practice is charging more for 15 or 20 minutes in the outpatient clinic than for 24 hours in the hospital. My next question to the students: Does this make any sense to you? The answer: no! What's more, of those practices that did charge for daily doctor care, the clients didn't complain about the fee-most didn't even notice it.

Our future veterinarians get it. They want to work for bosses who value the profession, practice high-quality medicine, and charge appropriately for what they do. They realize that price is an issue only in the absence of value and that when clients complain about money, they're actually unhappy because of a perceived lack of value. These future veterinarians are ready to set the right fees, not discount, and show clients the value of what they do.


Adding fuel to the fire about charging appropriately for services, students are concerned about their debt and how they're going to repay it. Listen to what students have told me: "

I'm afraid of my debt. Will I make enough money to live comfortably and still be able to save for the future?

I'm worried I won't be able to pay bills and live with my student debt load, which is about $150,000

Students are ready to work. They know that they'll need to be productive and earn their salaries-and they're up to the challenge. During my chats with students, I ask them to decide how they'd like to be paid once they're in practice. I give them three options: a flat salary of $70,000, pay based on 22 percent of their production, or pay based on 22 percent of their production with a guaranteed base salary of $65,000, a system I call ProSal.

Almost 100 percent of the students choose ProSal. They know they can be productive and want an opportunity to earn more money. ProSal is a win-win for the employer and the employee. If the employee makes more, so does the employer. And if the employer is going to pay a $65,000 salary anyway, why not give the associate veterinarian a chance to make more for both of you?

OK, what if ProSal creates a "money, money, money" attitude in the practice? If this happens, it's due to a much deeper problem with a person's morals and professional values. But I can tell you these fears are mostly unfounded. It's rare to find a veterinary student who's totally money driven, and that shouldn't keep practice owners from paying associates fairly.


If you're worried that our veterinary schools are turning out graduates who care only about business, money, and their own quality of life, don't be. Graduates are mostly concerned about patient care, quality of medicine, and surgery. Listen to what some juniors at the University of Florida told me when I asked them to express their number one concern after graduation:

"I won't have the answers that clients expect me to know."

"I'm concerned about not knowing what do to in a medical situation."

These students are concerned about providing top-notch care to patients, not about how much money they'll make.

At another university I had a spirited discussion with a student. She didn't think veterinarians should charge for spays and neuters but should provide these services at little or no cost to clients.

The entire class got into the discussion, and we talked about the profession's responsibilities to the community, ways to support organizations that offer this service, and other options. Just interested in money? Hardly! It was a great discussion and made me feel good that people with such conviction are a part of veterinary medicine.

The future of our profession is looking bright. Sure, these new veterinarians will walk into your clinic a little wet behind the ears. But we owe it to new graduates to toss them a towel and provide them with an environment where they can be successful. As one student said, "All I want is to work at a practice where I can provide quality veterinary medicine and surgery, work with a great healthcare team, make a good living, and have a strong personal and professional life. Is that a dream, or can I find that?"

Mark Opperman, CVPM, is VeterinaryEconomics' Hospital Management Editor and owner of VMC Inc. in Evergreen, Colo.

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