With more than half of veterinary students seeking training in companion animal medicine, many veterinary sectors, including academia, industry, food animal and public service, face potential shortages of qualified veterinarians that could have significant effects on public health, according to a National Research Council of the National Academies of Science report released yesterday.
The report, written by the Committee to Assess the Current and Future Workforce Needs in Veterinary Medicine, warned that without immediate action, the academic veterinary community may not successfully prepare future generations of veterinarians for faculty teaching and research positions, jobs in state diagnostic laboratories and federal research and regulatory agencies, and the pharmaceutical and biologics industry.
This potential shortage could be exacerbated by a strengthening economy that could create many new jobs in industry, according to committee member Fred Quimby, retired vice president and senior director of the Laboratory Animal Research Center at Rockefeller University in New York.
The rising cost of veterinary education contributes to the situation, as costs could deter some veterinarians from pursuing advanced degrees and others from applying for lower paying positions, including government jobs in food safety, epidemiology and wildlife management. Moreover, the report found that a declining return on investment for veterinary education could reduce the quality of future applicants to veterinary school and diminish the quality of the education itself.
This potential shortage of veterinarians with advanced training could diminish food safety and animal health standards, human and veterinary drug development, infectious disease control and wildlife and ecosystem management, according to the report.
“Companion animal medicine and its growing number of specialties that improve the health and lives of pets has been a success story, but it dominates veterinary schools’ curriculum and resources, sometimes to the detriment of equally critical fields,” said Alan Kelly, chair of the committee that wrote the report and emeritus professor of pathology and pathobiology at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine. “We must ensure that schools train qualified veterinarians in sync with the diverse and growing array of societal needs.”
Food safety and zoonotic disease prevention are among those societal needs, especially as meat production in developing, and often hot and humid, countries, according to Kelly.
“The fact that 60 percent of all infectious diseases in humans are of animal origin and 75 percent of emerging infection diseases in the last decade arose from animals underscores the importance of maintaining expertise in other areas of veterinary medicine,” he said.
For example, as food-animal health care is shifter to less trained, less expensive staff, the likelihood of early signs of disease being missed increases, Kelly said.
The 320-page report culminates with five conclusions and 10 recommendations, including discussion of shortening the length of veterinary education by combining the DVM degree with other advanced degrees (notably MPHs, Ph.D.s, and MBAs) or reducing pre-veterinary education requirements, similar to the proposed six-year program at Lincoln Memorial University in Tennessee and collaborations to expose students to professional pathways other than companion animal practice and create alternative models for teaching and specialty hospitals.
For example, by reducing the length of pre-veterinary education required for top students to enter veterinary school to one or two years would allow those students to incur less student debt and have a longer earning span.
Kelly likened the four-year pre-veterinary degree to a two-edged sword that added to student debt and delayed and shortened a veterinarian’s earning life.
The conclusions and recommendations are:
1. In its review of the profession, the committee found little evidence of widespread workforce shortages in veterinary medicine, although industry and some areas of academic veterinary medicine are experiencing shortages of veterinarians who have advanced training. The committee noted a difference between workforce shortages and unmet needs for veterinarian positions. Societal needs for veterinary expertise are substantial and growing, but the potential contributions of veterinary medicine are not realized because appropriate positions in relevant sectors are lacking.
Recommendation 1A: Industry veterinary workforce shortages can be addressed by deeper partnerships between academe and industrial employers of veterinarians. Academe should more actively seek industry biomedical research partnerships, student mentoring, and opportunities in the curriculum to expose students to corporate practice.
Recommendation 1B: To meet the needs for positions for veterinarians in public practice, the committee urges state and federal governments to reexamine their policies on remuneration, recruitment, and retention of veterinarians.
Recommendation 1C: The Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges, American Animal Hospital Association, and American Veterinary Medical Association should develop realistic strategies for meeting companion-animal veterinary medical workforce needs. Building such a strategy requires reliable national data on consumer demand for companion-animal care, the economics of private practice, the role of veterinary technicians in extending companion-animal care, and the implications for the profession of growth in accredited and non-accredited veterinary schools both inside and outside the United States.
2. The decade-long decline in funding of education and research has jeopardized the profession’s future capacity to serve societal needs.
Recommendation 2: Veterinary academe should increase its commitment to research, developing future faculty, and encouraging current faculty to work across disciplinary and professional boundaries. The Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges is well positioned to take on this challenge.
3. The current return on investment for veterinary education is unsustainable and the cost of veterinary education is at a crisis point. The profession may be at risk for lowering the quality of applications to the profession and the quality of veterinary education. The veterinary profession has been slow to respond to these challenges.
Recommendation 3A: Professional veterinary organizations, academe, industry, and government should work together with a sense of urgency to stimulate the collective actions needed to ensure economic sustainability of veterinary colleges, practices, and students. A national consortium or committee should be jointly supported to bring together initiatives that focus on the economic sustainability of the profession in all sectors of service, education and research.
Recommendation 3B: As part of a comprehensive strategy to address the economic sustainability of the veterinary profession, the working groups appointed by the consortium should create nationally shared curricula.
Recommendation 3C: U.S. veterinary colleges should evaluate and implement alternative options for the delivery of veterinary education and research.
4. The veterinary profession is losing its presence in food-animal production and care.
Recommendation 4A: To increase the economic value of veterinary services to producers, the education of food-animal practitioners should be reoriented towards herd health and interventions aimed at improving the financial health of the farm operation. Veterinary schools and colleges should work together to achieve this goal by creating centers of emphasis on food-animal medicine.
Recommendation 4B: The veterinary profession should formulate new ways of delivering cost-effective services to rural America, using veterinary technicians to extend animal health services to underserved areas.
5. Global food security is one of the most pressing challenges of the 21st century. The food and water security and safety concerns confronting the world today are far more daunting than anything veterinary medicine has previously had to confront. Because these challenges are enormously complex, they will require the veterinary profession to engage in interdisciplinary and interprofessional One Health solutions.
Recommendation 5: Veterinary medical organizations and the deans of veterinary colleges should work to increase the visibility, standing, and potential of the profession to address global food security. Establishing a One Health think tank with the goal of advancing food-animal husbandry and welfare policies, ecosystem health standards, and the capacity of the veterinary profession in the developing world would help future generations of veterinarians to collaborate across professions, disciplines and cultures. A part of this body should also consider the necessary competencies required of U.S. veterinary graduates to address the global challenges of food and water safety and security, and the health of wildlife and ecosystems.
In addition to Kelly and Quimby, other committee members were Sheila Allen, dean of the University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine; Val Beasley, professor emeritus at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine; Bonnie Buntain, associate dean and professor on both the medical and veterinary medical faculties at the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada; Henry Childers, director of Cranston Animal Hospital in Cranston, R.I., Gary Cockerell of Cockerell Alliances in Grand Junction, Colo.; Harold Davis, retired vice president of pre-clinical safety at Amgen Inc.; Malcolm Getz, associate professor of economics at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn.; Tracey McNamara, a professor at the Western University of Health Sciences College of Veterinary Medicine in Pomona, Calif.; Gary Miller, a professor at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine; Bennie Osburn, dean emeritus of the University of California Davis School of Veterinary Medicine; Mark Pauly, a health care management department professor at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania; and Stephen Sutherland, senior director of U.S. regulatory affairs at Pfizer Animal Health in Kalamazoo, Mich.
The American Veterinary Medical Association and the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges both sponsored the study and issued statements supporting the report.
“As society has changed—and as our world population has grown—veterinary medicine has been presented with challenges on a global scale, and this report highlights many of the issues that the AVMA and many other veterinary organizations have been addressing for some time now,” said Rene Carlson, DVM, AVMA president. “The National Academies report underscores some of the challenges that we face and, perhaps more importantly, that we must work to address in order to position veterinary medicine for an even stronger future.”
Dr. Carlson noted the report echoed several strategic goals of the AVMA’s strategic plan, last updated in 2011, including strengthening the economics of the veterinary profession, transforming veterinary medical education to meet the needs of a changing society, and advancing scientific research.
“The veterinary workforce of today may bear little resemblance to the one 10-15 years from now, said Dr. Andrew Maccabe, executive director of the AAVMC. “As the population increases and veterinary medicine evolves, we expect that veterinarians will fill more roles in a broad range of careers not typically linked in the public’s mind with veterinary medicine, including bioterrorism and emergency preparedness, environmental health, food safety and security, food production systems, regulatory medicine, diagnostic laboratory medicine, biomedical research, health promotion and disease prevention, public health research and epidemiology. Veterinarians are already working in these critical areas, but the need for veterinary expertise in nontraditional areas is increasing.”
Those needs are spurring the AAVMC to advocate for more public and private support of veterinary medical education, Maccabe said.
“The continued loss of funding from public sources for the public good is adversely affecting the ability of veterinary medical colleges to prepare graduates who will meet growing global needs for infectious disease control, protect people from food borne and zoonotic diseases and ensure environmental quality in cost-effective ways,” he said.
Other study sponsors are Bayer Animal Health, the American Animal Hospital Association and the Burroughs Wellcome Fund.
The full report is available online here and can be purchased in book form as well for future delivery.
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