Challenges And Opportunities In Veterinary Medicine

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Fox Rothschild LLP[author- Sarah Phillips, Summer Associate]

According to the 2017-2018 American Veterinary Medical Association’s Pet Ownership and Demographic Sourcebook, approximately 71.5 million U.S. households own at least one pet, 38% of which are dogs.[1] There is also a large portion of the country that owns non-traditional “pets” – equine, cattle, poultry and other livestock. Pet and livestock owners in urban, suburban and rural areas have a high demand for veterinarian care, but the high barriers to entry in an accredited veterinary school may be limiting animals’ access to medical attention from licensed veterinarians. Further complicating the reality of practicing veterinary medicine is the increase in legal issues resulting from alleged veterinary malpractice suits. Modern pet owners have access to more knowledge about medicine and treatments, and although veterinary medicine cannot guarantee health or long life, pet owners have high expectations.[2] In a time when pets are increasingly accepted as part of the family, pet owners are frequently attempting to hold veterinarians personally liable for the death of their pets.[3]

There are 30 accredited veterinary schools in the United States. Only 27 states are home to veterinary schools; Alabama, California and Tennessee are the only states with multiple veterinary schools.[4] With a limited number of schools, only 10-15% of those who apply to veterinary school are accepted.[5] The geographic location of the school is one of many factors that contributes to the low acceptance rates.[6] According to the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges’ 2018-2019 Annual Data Report, a majority of students accepted at any given school are residents of that state.[7] Resident students likely receive discounted tuition and have limited moving costs while those who come from out of state pay higher tuition and can expect high moving costs. Students who do not live in a state with a veterinary school are at a severe disadvantage.[8] Their chances of acceptance at an out-of-state school are much lower than in-state residents, and if they are accepted, the higher cost might deter them from enrolling.[9]

Another deterrent for veterinary school applicants is the rigorous prerequisites for application. Candidates need more than just a high GPA; they need significant experience working with animals in the field.[10] Most opportunities to work with practicing veterinarians in the field are in the form of internships with limited stipends or other financial incentives.[11] For those that cannot afford to take on a low paying internship to get the necessary experience, vet school acceptance becomes less likely.[12]

Of those who are accepted, the average individual will graduate with $143,111 in debt.[13] Females can expect to graduate with more debt, and a lower starting salary at their first job than their male counterparts. For example, in the equine industry, a female equine veterinarian can expect to earn about 16.2% less than her male counterpart.[14]

After graduation from veterinary school, graduates face a different set of challenges. The American Association of Equine Practitioners estimates that 4 out of every 5 practicing equine veterinarians have work-related injuries, but cannot afford to take time off to heal. In addition to work place injuries, many veterinarians struggle with mental health challenges. According to a 2015 CDC survey, 1 in 6 veterinarians have considered suicide,[15] and given their frequent exposure to dying animals and access to controlled substances, this number is quite alarming.

The country has a growing need for healthy, qualified and diverse veterinarians with a variety of specialties. However, encouraging students to take on the challenge of applying to and completing veterinary school is becoming more difficult. In addition to high debt, long hours and salary discrepancies, potential veterinarians may also be deterred by the increasingly frequent malpractice suits accusing them of failing to care for pets appropriately. For individuals who choose veterinary medicine because of their love for animals, alleged malpractice can not only be a financial burden, but an emotional and mental hardship as well. Addressing disparity in cost, opportunities and post-graduate employment options, in addition to providing more legal protection for veterinarians will help potential, well-qualified individuals choose to pursue a career in veterinary medicine.

[1] Pet Ownership and Demographic Sourcebook, American Veterinary Medical Association (2017-2018 ed.).

[2] Mary Margaret McEachern Nunalee and G. Robert Weedon, Modern Trends in Veterinary Malpractice: How Our Evolving Attitudes Toward Non-Human Animals Will Change Veterinary Medicine, 10 Animal L. 125 (2004).

[3] Id.

[4] Why the Majority of Veterinary School Applicants are Denied, (Mar. 20, 2017), https://bit.ly/2XckYCs.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Annual Data Report 2018-2019, Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges (2019)

[8] Why the Majority of Veterinary School Applicants are Denied, (Mar. 20, 2017), https://bit.ly/2XckYCs.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] AVMA-AAEP 2016 Survey of Equine Practitioners, (2016).

[12] Lisa M. Greenhill, MPA, EdD, The Market for Veterinary Medical Education, Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges (Oct. 22, 2018)

[13] Malinda Larkin, Salaries, Debt for New Graduates Continue to Increase, American Veterinary Medical Association (Nov. 28, 2018), https://bit.ly/2NaPXtH.

[14] AVMA-AAEP 2016 Survey of Equine Practitioners, (2016)

[15] David Leffler, Suicides Among Veterinarians Becomes a Growing Problem, The Washington Post (Jan. 23, 2019), https://wapo.st/2AX5uoA.

[View source.]

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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