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Supply and demand

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JUST because something happens in America doesn't necessarily mean it will happen in the UK. Nevertheless, an article in the New York Times last month is worrying. Called ‘High debt and falling demand trap new vets’, it paints a depressing picture of the economic situation facing new veterinary graduates at a time when demand for their services appears to be falling.1 It reports, for example, that the cost of a veterinary education in the USA has far outpaced the rate of inflation in recent years, having risen by 35 per cent over the past decade, to a median of US$63,000 a year. Over the same period, taking account of inflation, starting salaries for new graduates have fallen by about 13 per cent, to $45,575 a year. Currently, the ratio of debt to income for the average new vet is roughly twice that for doctors. All of this, the report suggests, portends lean times for new veterinary graduates.

At a time when American veterinary schools are producing more vets, with class sizes having increased by up to 20 per cent in recent years, the job market is getting worse. The New York Times reports that, in 2012, only 45 per cent of graduating vets reported that they had accepted a permanent job offer (as opposed to an internship or residency), compared to 84 per cent in 1999. It further reports that 39 per cent of new graduates had no offers last year, up from 19 per cent in 1999.

Discussing demand for veterinary services, it notes that, between 2006 and 2011, the number of dogs in the USA dropped for the first time, albeit only slightly, from 72 million to 70 million. The amount owners paid to vets also fell, with owners paying about $20 less a year in inflation-adjusted terms over the same five-year period. For cats, the declines were more significant, with the number of cat-owning households falling by 6 per cent between 2006 and 2011, to 36.1 million. Meanwhile, the number of cat visits to the vet fell by 13.5 per cent. The horse population is estimated to have fallen by 30 per cent since 2008.

The New York Times article also refers to the gender shift in the veterinary profession and the fact that women now account for 80 per cent of new graduates. ‘As with most professions, there is a pay gap between men and women,’ it says, ‘and in the veterinary field this has widened since the [economic] downturn.’ It reports that, in 2012, starting salaries for women veterinary graduates in the USA were 16 per cent lower than for men, compared to a 3 per cent difference in 2001.

Regarding farm practice, it draws attention to the difficulties of finding vets to work in underserved areas, and how hard it might be for them to make a living if they do.

Commenting on the New York Times article in a message to its members,2 the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) says it is very aware of the economic challenges facing the profession in the USA and that ‘Unfortunately, none of the issues raised in the article are new to us.’ It draws attention to various veterinary workforce studies it has conducted over the years, including a report from the US National Academy of Sciences in 2012 (VR, June 30, 2012, vol 170, p 656). Called ‘Workforce needs in veterinary medicine’, this expressed concerns about the sustainability of the veterinary profession and a need for the profession to evolve to meet changing societal needs. Among other things, it suggested that there are currently sectors of ‘unmet need’ for veterinarians, to which the profession might usefully contribute more in the future. In particular, it commented, ‘In recent years, the dominant focus of veterinary medicine has shifted from farm animal health to companion animal care, and concerns are growing that this emphasis is directing resources away from veterinary medicine's other, equally important, roles in basic research, public service, food production and other sectors, resulting in a workforce that may be insufficient to address priorities for protecting and advancing animal and human health.’ In one of its more challenging assertions, it suggested the focus of the profession was becoming too narrow and that tackling issues such as global food security and one health would require ‘a new, broader definition of veterinary medicine, of its fundamental competencies, and the focus that veterinary medicine must take’.

The AVMA draws attention to other steps it is taking to address the issues identified in the New York Times article, including carrying out a large workforce study, the results of which are expected later this spring. Not all of the issues identified in the article will be applicable on this side of the Atlantic. However, with similar concerns being expressed about increased numbers of students, rising debt and future employment prospects, thought might usefully be devoted to these matters in the UK.

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