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3 open minutes with Christine Navarre

PD Editor Walt Cooley Published on 24 June 2011

AABP recently established a committee to review the supply of and demand for rural practicing veterinarians. Progressive Dairyman Editor Walt Cooley recently asked about the committee’s opinion paper and what it intends to clarify about media reports of a so-called shortage of veterinarians.

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Q. This opinion paper is not the first time AABP has gotten involved in this so-called ‘veterinary shortage.’ How have you addressed this issue in the past?
A. NAVARRE:
It was a follow-up opinion to a coalition study that AABP was involved with back in the early 2000s, which is where this whole “shortage issue” first started. Then we had a lot of practitioners who were saying they had jobs, but they didn’t have people applying for them. That study was a marketing study which showed, yes, there were some shortages of practitioners.

One of the things that came out of that study was reasons why students weren’t choosing rural veterinary practice. So after that study, AABP and other veterinary organizations started recruiting students into this type of practice and that’s been largely successful.

Q. Why release this paper now?
A. NAVARRE:
Since that study, the economy has changed. The overall economy is not only hurting rural practices; it’s hurting veterinary practices in general, all over.

Milk prices in the dairy industry have really impacted vets in dairy practice, so practices that may have had jobs at one time have actually withdrawn those jobs and are waiting to see what the overall economy’s going to do and what their clients are going to be able to do. But one of the things that worried us was we keep hearing the press commenting about vet shortages and it kind of depends on how you interpret the word “shortage.”

Q. What is the committee’s current opinion of the supply of veterinarians in the near term?
A. NAVARRE:
We don’t think there’s a shortage of interested, graduating students any more. There are students that want these jobs. The problem now is that those previously unfilled veterinary jobs aren’t necessarily there any more for a lot of different reasons, and we speculated on some of those in this paper.

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Our biggest fear is that if this term “shortage” of veterinarians is interpreted as, “We need more veterinarians,” it means that we’re going to have an oversupply in the future, which impacts not only rural practices, but the overall veterinary job market.

Q. What’s the difference between a rural, mixed practice and a food supply veterinary practice that may operate in rural areas? Why is this relevant to the ‘shortage’ discussion?
A. NAVARRE:
A rural practice could be a mixed practice or a food animal practice. Most of our AABP members who are bovine practitioners are actually mixed practitioners, and every single one of them is different in how much food animal work they do versus companion animal work.

They’re not all just bovine practitioners. They may do some other food animals such as swine, sheep, goats or poultry. Part of the problem with this “shortage issue” is differentiating the unmet needs of a rural practice.

What makes it so complicated is that a general practitioner, especially in a rural area, does get a little bit of everything. A lot of areas of the country can’t support somebody who does strictly food animals unless the vet is willing to travel.

Q. How would you describe the type of area in the U.S. that might have a veterinary service shortage?
A. NAVARRE:
It’s small-town, rural America that’s having trouble finding vets, and not only vets but physicians and dentists, too. These areas have trouble supporting veterinarians, and it’s not just a food animal issue. It’s also an issue for companion animal practices.

That typical single rural practitioner out there, by themselves, working on basically anything that walks in the door from a dog, cat, pig, snake, raccoon, cow or horse – that James Herriot type of practitioner – is what’s not there anymore.

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A lot of professions are having trouble filling rural opportunities because often you don’t just have to fill one need, you have to fill a spouse’s professional requirements too, and that just gets tougher and tougher all the time in rural areas.

Q. So there is not a shortage of bovine, and specifically dairy vets, in your opinion?
A. NAVARRE:
No, we’ve got students that are interested in taking those jobs.

Q. So if there are ample interested students and areas in need, why the shortage?
A. NAVARRE:
One of the factors is the consolidation of agriculture. So, for instance, dairies are shrinking in number in certain areas of the U.S., and yet there’s still a few there that need service, but not enough for a food-animal-only practitioner to maintain a practice. Why is that?

Well, to maintain services for food animals, you have to have a certain inventory of equipment and drugs. So as a vet, while there may still be livestock clients in an area who need you, you can’t support them because they can’t support enough of your entire business to be profitable. Also, rural economies in general are having trouble. That’s a big part of it.

I think there is also a generational difference. A lot of our mixed practitioners out there are single-person practices, and younger-generation students don’t want that. They want mentorship. They want another practitioner to be able to bounce ideas off of.

Q. What other veterinary business models are being considered to service these rural, mixed practice areas?
A. NAVARRE:
It may be that a veterinarian is not going to be right there in that community. Some of the models may be that a veterinarian will have to cover a bigger area – be a regional vet – or use paraprofessionals and technicians.

Again, there are lots of different things we’re looking at. Not everybody agrees on how we should fix the problem and it will likely take different solutions to serve different areas.

Q. How is consolidation affecting business models for dairy vet practices?
A. NAVARRE:
There are different opinions on this. With large operations and with the tight profit margins, there are practices that do preventative health services very well. We know preventative medicine is much better and costs a whole lot less than trying to chase a disease after the fact.

There are practices that, to be honest, are lagging behind in preventative medicine. We know how to do those services, but we don’t necessarily know how to market those services to our clients and tell them why they are better than coming out and trying to fix a wreck later.

Q. In your opinion paper, you discuss the rising costs of veterinary education. How is this impacting new vets in rural areas?
A. NAVARRE:
It’s the crux of the issue, really, because what’s happening is we need students who can go out and maybe start practices in areas that don’t have a practitioner. But because of their student debt, having to go into debt again to start a practice is just simply too difficult. They can’t do it.

It’s a very critical issue and, unfortunately, what’s happening is some vet schools are expanding classes by expanding their out-of-state applicant pool. If students have to borrow money for out-of-state tuition, they’re coming out with even higher debt. Student debt is so high that it’s making it tough for anybody to be any type of veterinarian, not just a rural practitioner.

Q. Are there any programs currently in place or that are in discussion of being put in place that you think would assist with this crisis as you call it?
A. NAVARRE:
Yes, the Veterinary Medical Loan Repayment Program and Veterinary Services Investment Act will help, but probably only in the short term. What we want to do is look at the business models that aren’t working right now and see what we can do to change them so that we fix the problem long term.

Q. What are the opportunities for new vets coming out of school?
A. NAVARRE:
I think being innovative is the key, and I think it’s going to take communication between the industry and veterinarians at a lot deeper level than maybe we’re doing now. We need to find out exactly what producers need and how a veterinarian can potentially fill those needs, instead of people thinking of just the traditional services the veterinarians provide.

The training that veterinarians get is really so diverse and so broad that we feel like we’re underutilized. I think a veterinarian’s training suits him or her to being the one who tries to bring everybody together, and that’s not necessarily what people think of as what a traditional veterinarian does. PD

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