Debt biggest deterrent to students becoming veterinarians
Recruiting students to become food animal veterinarians is not an easy task. “Student debt is the biggest issue facing the veterinary industry,” said Dr. Christine Navarre, who is an extension veterinarian and a professor at the School of Animal Science at Louisiana State University.
“Student debt has a negative impact on students and veterinarians in public practice,” Navarre said. “The student debt to income ratio is currently an average of 2.3 to 1. It is unhealthy if it gets over 1 to 1. We are getting into an alarming rate.”
Veterinary students going into food animal-type jobs have a lower debt ratio and higher salaries than their rural veterinarian counterparts. According to U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics, only 1,600 veterinarians are food animal exclusive out of about 110,000 veterinarians in the U.S.
Rural practitioners that are in mixed practices and food animal predominant have debt to income ratios closer to the average, Navarre said. “We don’t know what this actually means. These are averages, and every individual coming out of veterinary school may not fit these averages.”
Solutions to paying back student debt are not readily available. The most well-known program available to veterinary students is the veterinary medical repayment program. Students who use that program had a short-term retention rate of 70 percent, but long-term retention rates are unknown, Navarre said. Some state programs may also be available to students.
As far as recruitment and retention, Navarre said they need to find people who are interested in becoming veterinarians, train them, and find ways to keep them. “To become well trained in public health, it takes a lot of training post-DVM. We need to be able to offer competitive salaries to attract people to those jobs,” she said. Consulting firms are also competing for the best and brightest veterinarians. They train people in-house for what area they are in, she said.
Organizations like the American Association of Bovine Practitioners has obtained USDA grants to host practice analysis workshops to dive into the business and help veterinary practices evaluate their financial and human resource skills.
ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM
The bottom line is there are lots of elephants in the room, Navarre said, but the biggest bull elephant is how to decrease the debt load at graduation and make sure salaries keep up with the debt load. “The percentage of students graduating with debt is decreasing, but the total debt is increasing. Our hypothesis is more students with the means to pay for veterinary school themselves are applying,” Navarre said.
Most of the veterinarian shortages are in rural practices. “Rural life is not for everyone,” Navarre said. “Students site the lack of social and cultural opportunities, working for significant others, access to schools, childcare and mental health issues as reasons they won’t consider a rural practice. Salaries are also generally lower than other areas of the profession, as well as long work hours and emergency duties. These reasons are significant barriers to recruitment and retention.”
“Veterinarians in rural practices want to work fewer hours per week, so how do we recruit students to rural areas? One in five students are already from rural areas, so how do we get them out there, and to stay? I think community attachment is very critical for students who consider going to a rural area and staying in a rural area. Communities may need to step up and help target those rural students, and give them support to bring them back to the community,” she said.
Studies show men are more likely to have positive attitudes toward rural life than women, while women are more likely to chose family time as important, she said. With more graduates being women, younger veterinarians want to see more balance between work and life.
“From a systems perspective, you have to look at all the issues and how they interrelate. Change in one area impacts other areas,” she said. Graduating students want to work at a practice with an atmosphere that is modern and up-to-date, and offers mentorship, a caseload, and work to life balance. “We can’t ignore it. These things will need to be addressed,” Navarre said.
With the use of modern technology, veterinarians can work through some of these issues in-house. Navarre sited a Texas clinic that worked through childcare issues by starting an in-house facility for daycare.
Veterinarians are also using technology, such as cellular phones, to conduct tele-health and tele-medicine visits. Veterinarians can use pictures and video to conduct virtual visits. “Technology is something we need to embrace,” Navarre said. ❖
— Clark is a freelance livestock journalist from western Nebraska. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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