Study: Is there a veterinarian shortage? Yes. Could we fix it immediately? Yes.

September 18, 2019

Veterinary economist crunches the numbers to quantify the difference between open veterinary positions and DVMs seeking employment.

With so many positions open and so few candidates to fill them, veterinarians looking for jobs are finding themselves a hot commodity. (desdemona72/stock.adobe.com)Just a few years ago, the buzzword associated with the market for veterinarians was “oversupply”-there were too many veterinarians for the number of pet owners seeking veterinary care, many people in the profession asserted. Others countered that, strictly speaking, there wasn't an oversupply (since veterinary unemployment was negligible) but rather “excess capacity”-a certain percentage of veterinarians' ability to provide services was going unused.

Regardless of terminology, the pendulum has clearly swung back the other direction, and the industry is now using the term “shortage”-there simply aren't enough veterinarians to fill the positions available in practice or to serve the number of clients who want care for their animals. While much of the evidence for this shortage has heretofore been anecdotal, noted veterinary economist James Lloyd, DVM, PhD, presented preliminary research at the annual Pet Health Industry Summit hosted by Banfield Pet Hospital in Portland, Oregon, Sept. 12 that introduced some data into the discussion.

The study, “The Current U.S. Employment Market for Veterinarians,” was conducted under the auspices of Dr. Lloyd's Animal Health Economics consulting company-he recently retired from his position as dean of the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine-and commissioned by the Animal Policy Group lobbying and consulting firm, which has ties to Banfield.

“This study is meant to provide a snapshot in time,” Dr. Lloyd told corporate CEOs, nonprofit presidents, association executive directors and other veterinary industry leaders who made up the group of summit attendees. “The goal was to quantify the shortage of veterinarians using a ‘one point in time' analysis comparing the number of open positions for veterinarians to the number of applicants seeking employment.”

To provide this “snapshot,” Dr. Lloyd looked at the number of veterinary job postings on Indeed.com, along with data from the AVMA and AAVMC on how many veterinarians were likely to be seeking employment at that point in time. He concluded that there were about 1,400 open positions with no one to fill them, or about 1.7 positions per candidate. When Dr. Lloyd added in additional job openings from government, large animal medicine, industry and academia, the total number of open positions with no one to fill them totaled 2,000-plus.

Dr. Lloyd next looked at the number of candidates applying to veterinary schools: Were enough of them of sufficient caliber to fill that many vacant positions in the profession? On a basic level, he asked, could veterinary schools accept enough high-quality students to eliminate the shortage? His answer is yes.

In 2018, he found, 51% of veterinary school applicants received an offer from at least one school. Among those who did not, his research showed, between 2,000 and 3,000 applicants exceeded minimum levels of academic achievement-as determined by grades and GRE scores-compared to those in the pool who were accepted. While being careful not to draw too many cause-and-effect conclusions, Dr. Lloyd also pointed out that first-generation college students and non-white applicants were significantly less likely to receive an offer.

“Schools have to ask themselves the following question,” Dr. Lloyd said. “Are we recruiting students who will be successful in veterinary school or successful in veterinary practice?”

So, in very broad terms, Dr. Lloyd concluded-and leaving aside such important issues as any admission process weaknesses, the expense associated with educating veterinarians and massive levels of student debt-veterinary schools could theoretically eliminate the shortage by accepting more qualified candidates.