Waning student interest saddles profession


Dr. Karl Frees of Kansas City, Mo., didn't waver from his decision to pursue equine medicine despite widely spread reports of meager salaries, lengthy hours and no life.

Dr. Karl Frees of Kansas City, Mo., didn't waver from his decision to pursue equine medicine despite widely spread reports of meager salaries, lengthy hours and no life.

Table 1: 1999 Associate incomes by practice type

But the 32-year-old equine surgeon in private practice admits his career choice is becoming the exception having heard how many of his undecided peers ultimately elect a career in small animal medicine over one in equine medicine because of the sacrifices of the latter.

"What has scared students away on a superficial basis are stories of long hours … and little compensation," says Frees, who has taught students in academia. "To be fair, lots of good private practices offer good starting salaries. But historically, many equine practitioners … had that 'old boy's club' mentality: if you want to get into equine you're going to have to pay your dues."

Dr. Tom Lenz

Frees is laboring to change that perception as the profession is reporting a scarcity - some point to a gradual decline - of veterinary graduates entering equine practice. He and his colleagues are collaborating on behalf of the American Association of Equine Practitioners to expose the roots of the problem and craft potential solutions.

He says the disconnect between the established equine profession and the students they're trying to appeal to became glaringly apparent at an AAEP leadership conference last fall.

The room filled with middle-aged equine professionals fell silent when Frees, a much younger surgeon by comparison, stood up to defend the younger generation his peers denounced. The executives were complaining that "Generation X" demanded too much from their future employers in terms of salaries and time off.

Frees, representing AAEP's student relations committee, countered, "The fact that they're asking potential employers for time off, for better pay, for benefits is not that they're too demanding. They've invested a huge amount of finances and time and effort to get their degree. Why should they sign up for a lifetime of slavery, if you will, to the practice and clients with not much in return? The new graduates are (not) asking any more than what they deserve."

Frees' point is moot if more and more students fail to even consider a career in equine medicine.

Four years ago, when AAEP surveyed its members, the issue of a student shortage didn't even make the list of concerns. This year it was the no. 2 concern.

Bigger concern

"Everyone's looking for people (to hire) now," says Dr. Debbie Spike-Pierce, chair of AAEP's student relations committee. "A student shortage is going to be a problem if it isn't already.

"Some people have said there's a decline," adds Spike-Pierce of Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital in Lexington. "I don't necessarily think there's a decline, I just think there's an increased need."

Consequently, as part of its strategic goals for 2003, AAEP is encouraging its board members to revisit each of the 32 veterinary colleges scattered throughout North America to meet with students earlier in their academic career, starting with freshmen and sophomores, and rally interest in the profession.

AAEP in action

Table 2: Employment of new graduates

With the aid of Powerpoint, members will present to students hard-core data and anecdotal evidence as to the lifestyle and economic issues of a horse veterinarian.

"Equine practice is not just a profession or job, it's a lifestyle, and a darn good one. We're just trying to really improve the communication between AAEP and the students to try to get more of them into equine medicine," says Dr. Tom Lenz, AAEP president, who's helping to spearhead the project.

AAEP hopes to equally improve leadership within the organization's student chapters.

"We're putting together a student chapter advisor leadership forum, where we'll invite the advisors for the student chapters and give them a little education as to what's going on in horse practice," says Lenz. Those leaders can then convey the message back to the students.

At annual meetings, the association will add a student-oriented job fair and more wet labs and educational opportunities to enhance their clinical skills. AAEP will also continue to promote its Avenues Internship/Externship programs for students.

AAEP's strategic plan probes why such a drought of interested students exists. Lenz suggests several reasons:

Why a dry spell?

More students come from an urban and suburban background and haven't been exposed to horses while growing up like many people in previous generations did.

"Unless you're rabidly committed, which most of us are from as long as we can remember, you can be led another direction," says Dr. Midge Leitch, solo owner of a referral clinic in Fairfax, Va.

There's a perception among veterinary students that they'll make less money if they choose equine practice over small animal practice for instance. (See Table 1, p. 1E.)

"You have graduates entering equine practice who are not as financially productive as counterparts in a lot of other specialty areas; consequently, their salaries reflect that," says Lenz. "But, after they've been out of school for four or five years, salaries are much more equal across the board, as is their productivity."

Take heart, advises Leitch. "It's unlikely that any veterinarian, except by extreme strokes of luck, is going to become fantastically wealthy."

Campaign touts horse ownership for masses

Many students express concern about the lifestyle. Because few emergency clinics exist for horse practice, practitioners often spend long hours on emergencies and after-hours work.

"At my practice, we've made commitments to family and have drawn the line," says Frees. "We obviously have 24-7 emergency care, but we make sure the doctors get their time off. For too long, practitioners have given away their lives to their clients."

Frees says if established practitioners fail to change their ways to accommodate the next generation of practitioners, forget about any dreams of successful retirement.

Why warm bodies matter

"One perspective that is imperative behind established practice owners getting involved with new graduates is the question of who's going to buy their practices when they're ready to retire. If the number of graduates going into equine practice is reducing, that means their potential population of practice buyers is reducing," Frees notes.

Leitch is already considering the retirement dilemma. "Where are we going to find the young, energetic replacements for us old, tired people? It's not only a legitimate concern - it's a pressing one."

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