Maintaining rural veterinary practice (Proceedings)
There has been a lot of discussion in the past 10-15 years regarding the number of Food Supply Veterinarians (FSV) and/or Rural Veterinary Practitioners (RVP). The difference in these two populations is that FSV include government veterinarians (APHIS and FSIS), researchers, educators and other veterinarians that are somehow connected with a food animal production. RVP veterinarians traditionally are involved with food animals but have a more diverse practice in a rural environment.
These two different groups have been driving the discussion of supply of veterinarians. Much of the FSV discussion is driven by a very low supply of veterinarians interested in regulatory jobs such as meat inspectors or educators competing for students. However, these issues have little relevance to rural veterinarians. Some rural veterinarians have had difficulty hiring associates. However, there are many graduate veterinarians interested in RVP that cannot obtain employment in RVP. This dilemma is probably associated with a disconnect between demand for rural veterinary services and demand for veterinary service elsewhere.
There are veterinarians that would like to hire an associate or sell their practice. However, the salary offered or income potential of the practice is not sufficient compared to the other options that new graduates have. There is a continuing trend of loss of population in rural areas which affects schools, businesses and other entities. This population loss erodes the income potential for a veterinary practice.Overall, there has been a consolidation of livestock on to larger operations. Higher input costs have tightened the profit margins and decreased amount spent on veterinary services. Additionally, as farms get larger many services previously supplied by veterinarians are being provided on farm. Rural veterinarians need to find innovative ways to maintain a rewarding practice.
One new opportunity is the increase in hobby farms particularly on the edge of urban areas. These hobby farms have the potential to be a strong client base if handled correctly. Many of these new farmers have little knowledge of livestock and are eager to learn. RVP can provide a wide range of education and services to these producers if they are patient and willing to cultivate a relationship. In some cases these clients are willing to pay for more extensive treatment then traditional livestock operations. As the economy improves expect these clients to increase in number and have income available to pay for services.
It is important to remember that newer graduate have grown up with potentially different values and work ethics than veterinarians that graduated 20-40 years ago. Many RVP are used to working 10 or more hour days, at least 6 days a week and take emergency calls at all times. New graduates in general will be unwilling to embrace that type of practice scenario. Surveys on why veterinarians left RVP identified that time off, emergency duty and salary were some of main drivers to leaving RVP. Surprisingly, many veterinarians leaving RVP had been in practice for greater than 12 years.
Another concern is an increase in efforts to open veterinary practice acts in many different states to allow non-veterinarians the ability to perform services previously restricted to veterinarians only. Practicing veterinarians need to be proactive in developing relationships with their representatives and speaking up for veterinary medicine. However, be careful that you do not present your concern as turf protection and loss of income. Emphasis has to be on animal care, welfare and food safety. There has been some interesting discussion about allowing Para-vets to practice under the supervision of a veterinarian. This scenario would be similar to Physician Assistants or Nurse Practitioners in human medicine.
There are not any easy answers to maintaining RVP. Interventions such as changing admission policies or debt forgiveness will not address the underlying problem that is occurring across rural America. Veterinarians, educators and policy makers should carefully consider all aspects of veterinary supply issues and work to meet the challenges that are coming.