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Too much of a good thing?

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A WORKFORCE study published by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) last week suggests that the supply of veterinarians in the USA may be exceeding demand for their services.1,2 The study is clearly quite specific to the USA. Nevertheless, at a time when concern is also being expressed about a possible future ‘oversupply’ of vets in the UK, the findings are likely to be of interest on this side of the Pond – as, indeed, will the efforts being made by veterinary organisations in the USA to clarify the extent of the problem and address some of the factors involved.

In general terms, the findings tend to support the impression given by a story in the New York Times earlier this year, which reported that high debt and falling demand for veterinary services raised the prospect of lean times ahead for new graduates (see VR, March 23, 2013, vol 172, p 300). Specifically, the results suggest that approximately 12.5 per cent of veterinary services in the USA went unused last year and that demand for veterinary services was sufficient to fully employ only 78,950 of the 90,200 vets currently working in clinical and non-clinical settings. They further suggest that excess capacity is likely to persist for the foreseeable future, even if US veterinary colleges were to curtail expansion in enrolment. The results of mathematical modelling can only be as good as the data available and the assumptions on which the models are based. Nevertheless, on the basis of various simulation exercises, the study suggests that the USA's excess capacity will range between 11 per cent and 14 per cent annually between 2012 and 2025. At present, it suggests, the extent of overcapacity is greatest in equine practice (23 per cent), followed by small animal (18 per cent), food animal (15 per cent) and mixed practice (13 per cent).

The results, the AVMA emphasises, do not show that 11,500 vets can't find work, rather that most do not feel that their capacity to provide services is being used to the full. It also points out that they reflect underemployment of veterinarians rather than unemployment. It notes that overcapacity is present in every industry and is necessary to meet surges in demand but says that, as far as veterinary services are concerned, it is difficult to be sure about what the optimum level of excess capacity might be.

Other findings of the study include a decline in mean income for veterinarians in clinical practice between 2006 and 2012, most notably in the equine sector. On average, veterinarians employed in clinical practice were working more than 40 hours a week, despite the excess capacity in the workforce generally.

It is one thing to identify a problem; it is another to decide what to do about it. Suggestions in the workforce report include developing better ways of measuring demand for veterinary services, developing ‘early warning’ indicators of imbalances between supply and demand for veterinarians, and finding ways of increasing demand for veterinary services. For its part, an AVMA Workforce Advisory Group has made a number of recommendations on the collection of more economic and employment data, investigating the need and demand for veterinary services, and looking at ways of boosting demand.

Responding to the workforce report last week, the Association of American Veterinary Colleges suggested that ‘market forces are the ultimate determinants of capacity and demand’ and that ‘periods of stress and friction are not unusual as professions work through supply and demand cycles’. It drew attention to the effects of the economic recession on demand for veterinary and many other professional services while noting that there are signs that the US economy is recovering. It pointed out that people in possession of a veterinary degree are uniquely equipped to tackle some of society's most pressing problems and said its overarching goal was to make sure that efforts to prepare new generations of veterinarians ‘remain in strategic alignment with the needs and expectations of the society we serve’.

Matching supply to future demand is notoriously difficult, not least because it is impossible to be sure about what the future might hold. Also, it is important to think beyond traditional roles, and it is to be hoped that veterinarians will be able to carve out new roles for themselves in response to changing requirements. Certainly, given the challenges currently facing the planet, and as a report from the US National Academy of Sciences pointed out in 2012, their expertise could usefully be applied in more areas (VR, June 30, 2012, vol 170, p 656).

The USA is not the UK, and the circumstances surrounding veterinary education and workforce requirements differ. Nevertheless, the debate being had there could usefully be had here. Essentially, it boils down to the extent to which market forces should be allowed to predominate or whether someone, somewhere, should intervene.

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