Veterinary Economics – An Urgent and Critical Discussion

If you’re at all concerned about the future of the veterinary profession, you won’t want to miss an important presentation at the upcoming Western Veterinary Conference. Dr. René Carlson, AVMA president, and Dr. Karen Felsted, of Felsted Veterinary Consultants, will lead an interactive discussion titled, “Veterinary Economics – An Urgent and Critical Discussion,” from 2-3:50 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 22, at the WVC in Las Vegas. 

The economic challenges facing our profession are top-of-mind for many of us. Pet populations are up, but veterinary visits are down. Many practice owners have reported a decline in clinic income. Debt levels continue to climb for veterinary school graduates, and there are concerns about the size of the veterinary workforce. As you already know, the challenges are many, and the AVMA is working hard to quantify the issues and develop solutions. 

This presentation, which received positive reviews after its debut at the AVMA Veterinary Leadership Conference in Chicago last month, is sure to get us all thinking – and talking. Come join us at the WVC for the discussion and to learn about what the AVMA is doing to address these economic issues. Help us ensure that veterinary medicine remains a personally and financially rewarding profession.

12 thoughts on “Veterinary Economics – An Urgent and Critical Discussion

  1. DR Malcolm Getz, the author of the 1997 book , VETERINARY MEDICINE IN ECONOMIC TRANSITION will be delivering an address at the next meeting of the AAVMC according to:

    The problem is that will the veterinary academics there understand basic economic concepts like supply and demand and how specialization (ie the division of labor) actually works in the market? I think we might need to get them interpreters and economics tutors. It will probably go over their heads.

    Robert Nix
    Sherwood, OR

  2. AVMA knows economics is the most pressing issue for many of our members from the input we received from members and which resulted in our 2012-2015 strategic plan. AVMA is taking many actions to improve it. We cannot control the supply as Dr. DeHaven mentioned. It is simply illegal to do so. That doesn’t mean AVMA is supporting increasing numbers of schools or class sizes. It means it is not in our ability to limit them. Those wishing to pursue their dream of becoming a veterinarian have the right to do so just as we did.

    We do have a task force specifically looking at our current policy of foreign school accreditation, however graduates from foreign schools are not adding significantly to the veterinary medical workforce here any more than those graduates from U.S. schools, and actually probably less so. Graduates from the two newly accredited Caribbean schools were already in our workforce. As for the workforce study, we simply have to have current information because anecdotal information from older studies will not be credible in any argument. Times change. It is not necessary to do an overwhelming study, simply one to get some current facts we know are reliable.

    In the meantime, we need to concentrate on increasing the number of pets seeing veterinarians, and making sure we provide the value consumers want for the price they pay. Just like we ourselves decide which service (or product) we want to purchase for what price and whether we will purchase that product or service, so will consumers of our services choose their veterinarians based on trust, valued relationships and services. We need to look at what successful practices are doing right and learn from them. We need to monitor professional business trends like any other profession with our new Economics Division. We need to know how to implement good business principles in our practices. The best practices and professionals will be the most successful.

    The model for education and for veterinary medical practices is most likely changing. We need to change with it, and preferably even lead the change we would rather see to keep the services we provide relevant and valuable to the 21st century public. We need to be sure education is preparing us for that future and that all veterinarians see themselves as a valuable part of One Health, worthy of the compensation we deserve for our complex educational investment. AVMA is working diligently on these issues and solutions. We are open to everyone’s ideas.

  3. Dear Members,

    My concern for the economics of veterinary medicine is the number one issue facing our profession. Just last Sunday on CNN there was a broadcast about how pet owners can save money on their cost of pet care.
    Among a few comments were:
    1. Many pet food manufactures make premium foods and lower cost foods that have the same ingredients as the more expensive foods but under different labels.
    2. Pet owners can save of vaccine costs by going to “Free or Non Profit Clinics”.
    3. Many products that vets sell can be bought elsewhere at lower prices. Shop around.

    There were other comments along the same lines and to me although everyone wants to save money with the economy as it is, something about getting quality veterinary medicine doesn’t matchup with lower costs. I just want to practice quality medicine while at reasonable prices to my clients to provide a reasonable return on my investments and a reasonable quality of life for my family. Randy Deutsch, DVM

  4. One of the standards of accreditation should be the economic success of each school’s graduates. Do we even track employment information two years, five years, ten years after graduation? How many veterinarians leave the profession because they simply can not survive $200,000 loans on $50,000 salary?
    Dr. DeHaven, can you understand the frustration of members when the AVMA’s idea of an urgent response to a problem is to commission ANOTHER study? Has any attempt been made by AVMA to contradict the “outdated” economic information that veterinary colleges are still broadcasting to potential students?
    Is it true that no other profession limits the numbers of its members by any means other than supply and demand? I find that hard to believe, but will have to research the question further. I’m fairly certain the ADA does not accredit any foreign dental schools.
    I appreciate AVMA’s efforts to address these issues and reach out to members. I hope that meaningful action is taken soon to correct our course. Thank you for taking the time to post your thoughts and information.

  5. I appreciate the comments that have been posted, especially from Dr. Caldwell. Her postings highlight many of the issues and concerns that we share at AVMA. There are a few points that I think need some clarification, particularly as it relates to AVMA’s position on the relative surplus or shortage of veterinarians in the workforce. Unfortunately, outdated information and comments made by AVMA two or more years ago are still being quoted as our current position. We, too, are hearing a lot of anecdotal information about a surplus of veterinarians, especially in companion animal practice. We are aware that AABP and others have suggested that there is not a shortage of rural veterinarians, but rather that the current practice model is no longer economically viable. What about the workforce status of veterinarians in laboratory animal medicine? Public (government) practice? Food animal (production) practice?
    I agree that this is a time for AVMA to truly take a leadership role and take some definitive action where appropriate – or make some definitive recommendations in those areas where it is not our role to take action. But if we are going to take such actions or make such recommendations on behalf of the profession, we should do so based on solid data and not on anecdotal information. Unfortunately we do not have current data, and so that is why AVMA is looking at conducting a comprehensive supply/demand workforce study. Our intent is for this study to complement the long-awaited, much-delayed National Academy of Sciences veterinary workforce study.

    As to the class size concerns, allow me to point out that (thankfully) we live in a free market society where our government requires that the basic economic principles of competition and supply/demand govern our market place. We have laws and government agencies to ensure this is the case. This means that the veterinary colleges are free to set their own class sizes and the AVMA has no authority to stop them as long as the schools continue to meet the rigorous standards established and enforced by our Council on Education (COE). Similarly, the AVMA COE must accredit any school in the U.S. that goes through our application process and satisfies those rigorous standards. To arbitrarily refuse to accredit a school based purely on economic factors is not only unfair, it would be illegal. This would be true whether it is AVMA, or any other organization, that is the accrediting body for our U.S. veterinary colleges. Simply put, it would be illegal for AVMA to use accreditation as a means to control our veterinary workforce.

    In my mind, the key is to ensure that we maintain very high standards for every veterinary college we accredit and apply those standards equitably to all applicants. At the end of the day, if we are producing a high quality product (graduates) that is too expensive to produce or one that doesn’t provide an acceptable ROI, then the demand for our “product” will decline. We are certainly seeing some evidence that this is already starting to happen. For me, the critical question is whether or not we (meaning the profession at–large and organizations like the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges and AVMA) can provide meaningful interventions to effect changes and avoid the train wreck that many see looming in the not too distant future. Speaking for AVMA, I can promise you we are sure trying.

    Ron DeHaven, DVM

  6. Glad to hear that someone is addressing this. We have completely given our profession away to lay people and traveling salesman-type veterinarians. Who among us would allow someone with a dental scaler to “clean” our teeth when we visit the hair salon or barber shop? And how proud a veterinarian must be to give away their “exam” at the local big box store so they can sell precription medications. These temporary and nomadic “relationships” are NOT a valid VCPR, and yet our profession is riddled with them. We have trained the public to expect low-standard, low-cost services to the point that I don’t know why anyone would want to be a veterinarian. It is becoming impossible to make a living at it; it is rapidly becoming a “hobby” profession for the independently wealthy practitioner.

  7. @John Summar DVM
    “small animal/ exotic”

    Dr Summar,
    Congratulations on your thriving practice. However, this issue is not with small animal/exotic practice. It is with large animal and rural practice. When you decide to add a fifth small animal or exotic practitioner, expect to be inundated with applicants.

    One of the problems with state VMAs and perhaps the AVMA, is the lack of representation of large animal practitioners, who tend to populate organizations like the AAEP and AABP. Small animal practitioners tend to dominate the former organizations, with few exceptions, and consequently, the realities of large animal and rural practice are ignored. One example would be the deregulation of all veterinary dentistry in New York state some years back, when a lay person sued the board so that he could continue to float teeth at the race track. The problem wasn’t even on the radar of the small animal practitioners until they became an unintended consequence.

    As Doctor Chavez points out, “strong, good teams will continue to thrive.” A positive attitude is a wonderful thing to possess, especially in these challenging times. However, as the overall economy continues to falter, the ability to thrive comes into play, but this is something we have no control over. Although laudible, a positive attitude still does not address the fact that there will be a plethora of unemployed new graduates who are drowning in debt, in part due to the AVMA’s promotion of larger class sizes, additional schools of veterinary medicine, and legislation that enables the same.


    Lynn Caldwell DVM

  8. Strong, good teams will continue to thrive. The industry is projected to grow 30% through 2018, with RVTs on the rise. It will be the era of the Veterinary Technician/Technologist. This is the time to focus on the RVTg/RVT/CVT/LVT as an essential part of the veterinary team, so the veterinarian can grow, adapt, and be even more productive elsewhere. Traditional, older school vet offices that are not willing to update and adapt may be phased out, but that is only because clients are becoming more educated and demanding. I expect licensed nurses in all any human doctor’s office as a minimum standard, the same must become widespread in veterinary medicine. I would not be comfortable allowing lay people (trained on the job) to perform treatments on me at my doctor’s office, and we need to reduce this practice in veterinary medicine.

  9. Our practice is thriving, best year ever in 2011. Four vets, small animal/ exotic. Veterinary practices have lost touch with their clientele by pushing ever more expensive tests and procedures while neglecting an empathetic, genuine relationship with the client and pet.

  10. Dear Dr. Carlson,

    Glad to see the AVMA willing to address this crucial and acute issue. I have been unwilling to renew my membership this year for the first time since 1989 when I joined as a student member. What I want to know is this: Why does the AVMA continue to promote and propagate the misinformation that is being distributed regarding a fictional under-supply of large animal veterinarians in “under-served” rural areas? The AABP, which is the organization of those same veterinarians who serve in these rural areas, has countered the AVMA’s argument for increasing class sizes and subsidizing new graduates in exchange for their location in these supposedly “underserved” areas. The increasing oversupply of new veterinarians who are crippled with debt to the Federal government and the recent AVMA approval of several new colleges of veterinary medicine are right now severely damaging our profession and will for years into the future. I don’t feel that the AVMA is representing our profession well and is actually directly contributing to the destruction of a once attractive way to spend one’s life. To top this off, individual colleges of Veterinary Medicine are branching out with satellite clinics, in direct competition with their referral base. I do not see how this will change for the better any time soon.

    Wish I could join you in Vegas.

    Lynn Caldwell DVM
    Silverton, OR