Task force to lobby for approval of two new technician-training schools to boost recruitment
Two Tennessee veterinary organizations have teamed up to tackle the state's shortage of licensed veterinary medical technicians (LVMT).
A task force comprised of members of the Tennessee Veterinary Medical Association (TVMA) and Tennessee Veterinary Technicians Association (TVTA) met for the first time last month and came away with hopes of lobbying for two new veterinary technician-training accredited schools in the state, which they believe can help more than double the LVMT workforce in private practice.
"Both TVTA and TVMA are going to be addressing that issue with the Tennessee Board of Regents in the future. Right now, we are just in an educational phase to see what we need to do to get just one school set, preferably one that would serve the west end of the state because they are so deficient," says task-force member Kathy Massey, LVMT and Columbia University instructor.
"We're hoping for one school, but if we could get two that would be awesome."
The task force was put into motion when TVTA attended a state Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners meeting seeking change.
They planned to lobby for legislation requiring that a list of tasks — including dentals, resuscitative procedures, application of splints and slings, induction and maintenance of anesthesia, administration of vaccines, chemotherapy and euthanasia, among others — be performed only by LVMTs.
"But we realized there is such a shortage [of LVMTs] that it is probably unfair to create legislation. We don't want veterinary hospitals to have to close down if they can't get enough technicians to perform these tasks," Massey says. "But we had to start somewhere."
They began what Massey calls "baby steps" toward their goal by agreeing to a suggestion by TVMA President Chuck Halford, DVM, to start a joint task force to come up with ways to increase the availability of LVMTs in practices around the state.
"We want to do more public relations with schools and want to attempt to have articles in local papers, maybe pet magazines. We want to write articles about the cost of living, benefits, competitive salaries, online schools and other topics to educate the public and veterinarians," says Amy Nunnally, LVMT and TVTA president. The group also wants to establish partnerships with local organizations to begin building a grass-roots effort.
Tennessee is not alone. Almost the entire country faces a shortage of veterinary technicians. But Tennessee's numbers are dismal, Halford says.
"In Tennessee, there are only 370 LVMTs, and that includes all of the people who hold licenses but are not in practice, which is well over 100 people," says Halford. He notes that many don't work in private practice, but at teaching institutions like Vanderbilt and the University of Tennessee, or research facilities such as St. Jude.
"The simple fact is, every veterinary clinic ought to have an LVMT on staff, at least one per doctor.
"There are probably 1,000 veterinarians in the state, so we probably need five times as many LVMTs as we have now just for private practice," Halford says.
Partly to blame for the problem, Halford contends, are American Veterinary Medical Association accreditation standards, which severely limit how many institutions are deemed capable to train LVMTs.
"The problem is caused by rules that were passed by the AVMA with the intention to preserve the quality of health for animals. But they made accreditation standards too rigid," he says. "The program has to be two years long, and facilities have to be able to house animals, have the proper equipment and so on. This happened about 20 years ago. Over the course of my career, the trickle-down effect has been that many programs that were in existence were forced to close because they couldn't afford to change."
Despite the impact on LVMTs, AVMA's high standards did bring positive effects to the profession, including higher salaries, technological advances, increased availability of specialists and a higher quality of care.
"But the dynamic is that there is a tension between being able to provide these services and hiring lay help. It is easier to hire a veterinarian than lay help," Halford contends.
Characteristics of the profession also are to blame for shortages, Nunnally adds.
"I think the field does not attract new people because of the pay scale, and that is one thing we need to address. I know a lot of times technicians won't get benefits. And it is a mostly female-oriented profession. A lot of women find themselves divorced, maybe with a few kids, and you can't support your family on the low wages some of these technicians are making," she says.
Task-force members have identified what needs to be done and remain hopeful their efforts will be enough to meet the shortage. "Everyone uniformly feels like the situation is a disaster," Halford says.
"We are doing something to look at how we can stimulate schools to get started and take care of the need in veterinary clinics while still maintaining the quality of medicine. We need to develop creative ways our profession can do this."
Everyone is prepared for a long-term focus on change. "I think this will be an ongoing process," Nunnally says. "It's taken a long time to get this way, and likewise I think it will take quite a long time for us to correct it."