The U.S. veterinary medical profession contributes to society in diverse ways, from developing drugs and protecting the food supply to treating companion animals and investigating animal diseases in the wild. In a study of the issues related to the veterinary medical workforce, including demographics, workforce supply, trends affecting job availability, and capacity of the educational system to fill future demands, a National Research Council committee found that the profession faces important challenges in maintaining the economic sustainability of veterinary practice and education, building its scholarly foundations, and evolving veterinary service to meet changing societal needs.
The committee found little evidence of workforce shortages in most fields of veterinary medicine. True personnel shortages are indicated when salaries rise sharply in an attempt to attract qualified candidates to fill persistent vacancies. That is not occurring in any sector of veterinary medicine, except industry, where high salaries are offered to candidates with both a doctoral degree in veterinary medicine (DVM1) and a PhD, or with advanced training in pathology or laboratory-animal medicine.
Nevertheless, some veterinary colleges have increased enrollment and the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) has accredited additional veterinary schools to accommodate more students, most of whom will likely practice companion-animal medicine. Those actions will increase the supply of companion-animal practitioners, the largest group of veterinary practitioners, at a time of uncertain demand for companion-animal services. The profession’s leaders should pay attention to improving the economic value of the DVM, especially given the cost of a veterinary education, which is typically shared by the student and the public. The financial reward for the investment of time and money in obtaining a DVM is lower than that in other medical professions, such as dentists and pharmacists, which have the same or fewer years of training.
A larger consequence of increasing enrollments may be for the veterinary colleges themselves, which have inadequate resources for clinical faculty, specialists, and others needed to train future practitioners. Companion-animal veterinary medicine has come to dominate the curriculum and resources of veterinary schools, sometimes to the detriment of other fields of veterinary medicine, at a time when many veterinary schools are facing a precipitous decline in state support for faculty positions and tuition.
1 The University of Pennsylvania awards the Veterinariae Medicinae Doctoris (VMD), an equivalent to the DVM.
Future actions should be informed by reliable national data on consumer demand for companion-animal care and the economics of private practice (including the work patterns of practitioners and the role of veterinary technicians), by the need to maintain the quality and affordability of a veterinary education, and by the need to educate veterinarians for other sectors of the profession. Developing new business models for providing specialty training is part of this challenge. The committee recommends that the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges, the American Animal Hospital Association, and the AVMA work together to collect the necessary data and conduct planning.
The committee found that increasing student debt associated with a veterinary education is one factor that undermines the inclination of graduates to pursue PhD research training that would prepare them for academic careers, key jobs in public practice, and some positions in industry. Partnerships between industry and academe to expose DVM students to research and the establishment of joint DVM-PhD programs may increase the pool of potential candidates needed by academe, government, and industry.
Because research is important for the future of the profession, leaders in academe should make a greater commitment to strengthening its scholarly base. It is essential to attract more public and private support for veterinary colleges, but that requires academe to demonstrate the value of investment in veterinary medical research. Hiring DVM-PhDs and PhDs to attract grants, serve as mentors, and provide graduate training of veterinarians at the doctoral level for both biomedical and clinical animal research would keep veterinary schools in the mainstream of research.
An important challenge to the profession is its ability to evolve veterinary services in synchrony with societal needs. For example, to increase the value of veterinary services to large, intensive livestock and poultry producers, the education of food-animal practitioners should be reoriented toward herd health and improving the productivity of farm operations. In rural areas, where primary veterinary care is needed but there are too few farms to support full-time veterinarians, a system of animal health care involving rigorously trained technicians under the supervision of veterinarians could be developed. Such arrangements, which would also strengthen disease surveillance, could be initiated through negotiations by veterinary professional associations with state regulatory officials.
The veterinary profession should expand its capacity to address complex global problems, such as those associated with food security, by encouraging interactions between U.S. veterinary graduates and other disciplines and cultures, particularly in the developing world, where the profession has an opportunity to leverage its expertise in One Health2 and lead advances in food-animal husbandry and welfare, water safety and security, and the health of wildlife and ecosystems.
2 One Health is a holistic concept of health that recognizes and addresses the complex linkages between humans, wild and domestic animals, and their ecosystems.