High graduate debt, falling demand for pet health care & corporatisation. The veterinary profession is changing: is it for better or worse?

There’s a lot of debate going on right now about the future of the veterinary profession. Many vets are worried about the current trend which basically follows this path:

1) Huge demand to study veterinary, especially among young females (80% vet students are female)

2) Not enough places at vet schools: traditionally, the number of student places has been capped in order to avoid flooding the market with far more vets than jobs

3) The realisation by universities that there’s money to be made in teaching vet students, and that there’s a strong demand from students who don’t make it into the established vet schools. The first new vet school in over 50 years opened recently in the UK, and at least one more is planned. Meanwhile, in Eastern Europe, veterinary courses are taught in English, offering entry to the vet profession with a lower academic barrier if students are prepared to pay the fees

4) This is linked to the rising cost of veterinary education, with students in England paying £9000 per year x 5 years plus living costs

5) The result is that new vet graduates are qualifying with large debts, in higher numbers than ever before

6) Meanwhile the veterinary market is contracting, with people spending less money on pets, and so there are fewer jobs for vets available

7) Result: increasing numbers of underemployed young female vets with large debts

8.) Next part of jigsaw: there are fewer young vets to buy into established vet partnerships, and an increasing trend for chains of vet clinics to go “corporate”, owned by shareholders whose main aim may be profit rather than the traditional broader professional view of a vet fulfilling a calling to earn a living

9) Result: vets become pawns in the animal care field, with young female vets desperate to pay back loans by working for corporations. As employees rather than part owners, they become subject to pressures common in other walks of life (“For your bonus, you need to sell so much food, book in so many dentals, see so many people every hour”)

10) The long term potential result: erosion of trust in vets as pet owners question whether something is recommended because it is really needed, or because the vet needs to reach a target. This erosion of trust has already begun in recent years, with consumers questioning everything that professionals do: the sequence that I’ve outlined above will exacerbate this trend.

This trend in the veterinary professions seems to be a global one, and as ever, the USA seems to be further down the path than the rest of us. An excellent article has just been published on this in the New York Times – read it here: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/24/business/high-debt-and-falling-demand-trap-new-veterinarians.html?pagewanted=all&_r=2&

Vets are worried about these changes: our profession is heading down a new path with unpredictable consequences. It’s hard to know what can be done to change the path: it feels like we’re being nudged this way by unstoppable market forces.

What do you think? Should anything be done? Or do we just need to accept that this is the way it’s going?

  • Jennifer says:

    Don’t forget the Canadian veterinary schools. Around one-third of Atlantic Veterinary School (UPEI) graduates are American. Guelph (Ontario) and IIRC Western (SK) also increased their seats for American students. The American students pay much higher tuition. To add insult to injury, the American graduates of Canadian schools often compete against their Canadian classmates for employment back in the U.S..

  • pete says:

    Jennifer – this is interesting. Students from USA also make up a significant proportion of the students at the vet school in Dublin, Ireland, and at some of the UK vet schools. Again, they pay higher tuition than locals….

  • AngieW says:

    Seen it coming for years. Very sad and of course the RCVS have not been helping the situation, typical head in sand followed no doubt by some knee jerk reaction.

    Sad thing is most responsible owners would love to have a well qualified vet that focused on animal care but more of us have had to go with whats been on offer.

    I predicted a while ago, based on my own worries and observations, that repsonsible pet ownership would decline. I have said I will have no new animals due to costs and standards of vets.

  • pete says:

    Angie – what do you feel is “on offer” as far as vets are concerned?

  • Bemused Vet says:

    I’m 3 years, (slightly older than your usual), qualified vet. Here is my take on the situation based on my experiences and those of some of my classmates. Apart from the obvious economic downturn and high debt situation, the following factors have helped to fan the flames of uncertainty for those in their early careers and in my estimation, will only get worse for future graduates:

    1. New vets schools are opening i.e., Surrey in 2014 (apparently others are considering opening veterinary courses too). I have heard through Uni contacts that the people who ‘do the numbers’ say the industry job market can absorb the increase in vet numbers. I disagree, and believe there is a ‘disconnect’ between those who ‘number crunch’ in their office jobs with those pounding the streets (like me) trying to find work. Students have become ‘cash-cows’ for universities! I would like to see the evidence to tell me I’m wrong.

    2. Myself, and many of my class peers have encountered enormous difficulties securing the right job – especially when you consider the many personal and logistical factors individuals may have:

    A: Location. Some of us have commitments (i.e. family life) and can’t haul ourselves out to Skye at the drop of a hat – just because (e.g,) that is where the job is! I know it is an unfashionable idea to the hard-core factions out there, but ‘I work to live’, and not the other way round. Yes, I love my work but realise that we vets work exceptionally hard by virtue of our job descriptions. Just because I don’t’ fancy a 90 minute commute each way on top of my 10-hour day, does not make me a slack or underachieving vet! Anyway, isn’t the UK one of the most densely served countries when it comes to vet practices? – This is in vast contrast to a country I’ve just come from, which has about three practices serving the entire 1Million population ! – So, you’d think that I might have some choice in the matter of where I work? The fact that I don’t, and that I can’t seem to find a job even close to where I want, proves one thing – that, for every job out there, there are WAY too many overqualified applicants!

    B: Ethical considerations – each one of us works to a different ethical framework. Some vets are ‘performance driven’ and love to be pitched against their colleagues to reach and exceed targets. But, I know colleagues who are literally sent into a spiral of panic and virtual depression at the idea, and who dread their quarterly ‘review’ with the boss. In the past week my recruitment agency has presented 3 different permanent jobs to me, all of which are with ‘corporate’ brands who want floating vets. I have no doubt that I could rise to the challenge of working their formula-driven methods and indeed reach my monthly targets, but I have politely declined, for now. (I’m holding off until the bailiffs start knocking on my door). By the way, I completely understand that vet practices must make profits in order to survive, but when common sense in treating your patients is compromised because of rigid pricing structures – that is where I draw the line.

    C: New/recent graduates need support and in many cases (including my own experience), this is not happening. I note with sadness, that in my home town – London (yes, I know it is notoriously difficult territory for ‘newbies’) that every vet advert wants someone 5,6 or 7 years qualified and most are sole charge positions. Now, sole charge is not an issue in itself on the medical front (can always phone for help), but it is impossible to advance safely, and skilfully in the surgical field without proper mentorship (and is only right that this should be so). It seems (and I could be wrong) that in a great deal of practices in the East of England – particularly London – more experienced vets don’t care to teach anymore. It is sad for the next generation of vets that this is happening. This may be a result of an explosion of one-vet practices but from some conversations I’ve had with some London vets over the years, there is a definite whiff of ‘London-snob factor’ at play – i.e. an idea (whether real or perceived) that London pet owners expect higher standards from their practitioners than elsewhere. Hmmm! – slightly patronising to non-Londoners and totally untrue, and a bit rude to us recent grads who are still brimming the latest ideas and teachings. This lack of uptake of new/recent grads is absolutely devastating our chances of breaking into the industry and to getting ahead. I am desperate for a chance to learn and get on. Unfortunately, I’m just not being given the chance.

    3. ‘UK experience only’! – Ok, so London’s not cutting it for me and I’ve already spent one of my post- graduate years having to NURSE to make ends meet (grrrr)! So, I went abroad. It was to a second-world country (where I have a family base) but fortunately for me, has an amazing quality practice, with amazing MRCVS colleagues. Oh my goodness! I’m getting amazing surgical experience here – even orthopedics (that would be beyond most new UK-vets dreams) and fascinating medical cases that are rarely seen in UK. The caseload is enormous and my confidence grows. Yay!…

    ….but, on my return to UK – I naively think my fortunes will have changed on the locum front (how wrong I was) – I was faced with a flat, monotone voice on the other end of the phone line asking me ‘But, have you any UK practice experience’! To which I reply, ‘well, actually you can see by my CV that I’m a UK grad, I speak (almost) the Queen’s English (but not quite) and I’m a MRCVS, I’ve got great experience now and I’m confident that I can tell the difference between licenced and unlicenced drugs (I did do a five-year degree, after all!), and I can pick up things pretty quickly, and clients and pets love me!’…. Two different recruitment agents – ‘Oh, I’m sorry Ms X, it is going to be quite difficult to place you somewhere – the practices are being very fussy about this!’ The cherry on the cake was one practice partner telling me that he thought it should be made illegal for anyone under 5 years graduated to be allowed to locum! And, he sniffed at my overseas experience (which in my estimation was amazing)! Funny how our human medic counterparts nearly break their necks to secure internships in countries like South Africa where high surgery caseloads are the norm and where new graduate ‘hands-on’ participation is obligatory! Interesting how some of the brightest and most skilled human/veterinary surgeons start their careers in places like this. Yet, good old UK is so rule-bound, and (in my opinion) culturally weird about engendering success in our young people, that we have to go abroad to achieve in one year what would take three, here!

    I could write a book on my brief baptism of fire into the hallowed halls of the veterinary profession. I have the benefit of having had a career and life beyond the one I’m experiencing now, so I have an advantage of seeing behaviours and trends that are both common to the world at large, but also unique to the profession. One insidious trait I see, and absolutely loath, is how the profession operates a ‘Put up, or shut up’ basis when dealing with new graduate employees. The silence is deafening but the hollow look in their eyes tells it all. For all the thousands of wonderful vets out there, there are those who are self-interested to a fault. And, I’ve heard horror stories from my classmates as they’ve tried to scratch their way in the world, being denied references, not being given proper contracts, being hired and fired on whims, and odd stories of being bullied by the head nurse (who wields more power than the boss). Personally, I’ve come up against a few horrendously obnoxious individuals who have treated me appallingly – having not even met me, yet but thought it their right to talk to me with such woeful disrespect – just because of my year of graduation made them feel they could. I’ve been around the proverbial workplace ‘block’ a few times, and I’ve got broad shoulders so, on that occasion I was able to stand my ground against a workplace bully. My confidence was shaken, but what if I’d been a ‘green’ 23-year, ‘bright eyed and bushy tailed’ graduate – it would’ve been shattered. New graduates need to be treated with a bit more respect and celebrated (not derided) by those that employ them. And, for those out there who like to perpetuate the ‘rights of passage’ idea i.e., that ‘young’uns’ are there to be used and exploited, think again. This is the 21 Century, for goodness sake. I worry that with more and more vets being churned out of vet schools, who will be knocking on practice doors with a ‘begging bowl’ look on their face…the forecast will be bleak for everyone. And, the knock-on effect will ultimately mean much much lower salaries for those 7-year qualified vets too. Six years ago, as a student, I was conversing with one farm practice partner who exclaimed – ‘yeah, we can take our pick on new graduates, there are so many of them, and as such we can keep their salaries low – if they don’t like it, we’ll get another one’. I thought to myself…what he’s actually saying is ‘I don’t care about my staff, and ultimately I don’t care about my clients because it is they who must absorb the inconsistencies in facing a new fresh face each month’. Nothing good can come out of this way of thinking, but it is sadly on the rise.

    I am a good vet, with the potential to become a great vet! But, the hard facts are, I’m now earning less than I did as a personal assistant twelve years ago. I have more debt to pay than I’ve ever had in my life. Yes, the industry is contracting and yes it is getting more difficult to find a foothold. I loved the idea of becoming a veterinary surgeon (a job for life- I thought) – but sadly the profession is not showing much love towards the people already in trying to scratch a living in it.

  • £9k+ fees to study is ludicrous!
    I don’t know what the government was thinking when they upped the tuition fees like this..

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