During the most recent annual convention of the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), a panel entitled “Veterinary Oversupply: Issues and Ethics” was held. Though I did not attend the conference, I discovered several summaries of the events that transpired during this session, written by its various participants and observers. I read the reports with equal parts enthusiasm and anxiety. Unfortunately, they did little to encourage a positive opinion.
Citing results from the AVMA workforce study published in April 2013, recording a 12.5% excess capacity of veterinarians, one side of the panel put forth the opinion that “the veterinary profession is in or near acute crisis, with its constituents facing poverty and despair in a few short years.”
The opposing side “theorized that the expanding number of veterinarians is just what the profession needs to serve society’s needs as pet ownership and population numbers soar in the near future.”
How can we have completely opposing outlooks on the current status of veterinary medicine and what should be done to influence it’s future? Is this a simple scenario of there being two sides to every story? How is it possible, in matters related to something that should be black and white, that there are clearly disparate points of view? How can veterinarians be simultaneously facing a miserable future and immense prosperity?
Facts tell us things are skewing towards the more unfortunate side of the spectrum. The trend over the past 15 years shows a disproportionate increase in veterinary student loan compared to increase in salary. The average new vet carries about $150,000 in debt and can expect to earn a median income of about $65,000 for their first year of work. This translates a debt to income ratio of 2.4. Contrast this with comparable professions, including physicians (starting debt-to-income ratio is 1), dentists (1.7), and attorneys (1.7), and things can start looking more than a little scary.
There are 28 veterinary schools accredited by the AVMA, with two new schools having opened their doors to students this past fall. Consistent loss of state funding has crippled some schools financially, leading to increased tuition rates and increased class sizes. There are currently nearly 4,000 new graduates each year, up from about 2,500 in 2010. We’re certainly prolific at producing more doctors, but one must question, where are they going to work and how will they pay off their debt?
More and more new graduates elect to purse internships and/or residency programs. Many of those candidates carry the perception that the job market for specialists/internship-trained vets is better and they will be compensated financially at a higher level in the long run. Data suggests the opposite may be true; where their debt accrues further interest during a period of time of minimal income, pushing doctors further behind financially.
Despite the overabundance of veterinary graduates and oversaturation of clinics in certain regions, many geographical areas remain underserved for both primary care and specialty veterinary medicine. Sadly, there is little incentive for veterinarians to work in these areas, resulting in little opportunity for change.
Simultaneously, there are far too many pets lacking veterinary care despite easy access to primary care and specialty medicine because of a continued lack of perception of the value of what the profession can offer.
Suggestions put forth to remedy the economical downturn are to freeze current tuition rates, to reduce the time required for obtaining a veterinary and/or pre-veterinary degree, and to reduce the number of graduates per year.
Those measures are all potential solutions, but I also strongly urge us to consider our responsibility towards educating prospective veterinary students about the reality of student loan debt and what it contributes to their long-term goals.
When I decided to change careers and become a veterinarian, like so many of my peers, the concept of taking on triple digit student loan debt was negated by my pure and noble intentions. This was my calling. This was my aspiration. And there simply was no price to be placed on my ability to follow my dream.
As I’ve matured, I’ve come to appreciate how dreams are plastic and apt to change. They expand and morph, bending and flexing with time and experience. I now wish for such things as owning a home, taking a vacation, raising a family, and (gasp) retiring one day. Before committing to vet school, these were only fleeting images on the distant horizon of my lifetime. Now, considering my debt and that of my husband (a fellow veterinary specialist), they are much more tangible, but also infinitely more complex in nature.
We teach children that they can be anything they want to be as long as they work hard and persevere. Inspirational quotes tell us we’re never too old and it’s never too late. We repeat phrases such as “Love what you do, and you’ll never work a day in your life.” But we must also ask ourselves, at what point and in what capacity, when it comes to a career, does money really matter? The bigger question is this (paraphrased from an article I read): “Is it ethical to encourage children to enter a profession where financial freedom is only available to a select few?”
We all share the joy of success stories related to veterinary medicine — in fact, at the time of this writing there’s a story going viral on social media about the wonders of a pet goldfish whose owners elected to have surgery to remove a tumor from its head.
I argue that we have just as much responsibility to give attention to the darker aspects of the career as we do the positives. Though less palatable, we’re at least being honest with ourselves about the current state of affairs.
Otherwise, the debt we owe may be even bigger than anyone could have originally anticipated.
Dr. Joanne Intile