Addressing a shortage of rural veterinarians

UMN, SDSU collaborate for creative solutions


ST. PAUL, Minn. — Across the United States, there is a shortage of veterinarians, especially in rural America. The shortfall has been trending for decades, but universities are working to address the problem.

“The supply of veterinarians has remained relatively flat, whereas the demand has escalated,” said Dr. Laura Molgaard, DVM, dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Minnesota. “It is across the whole field, and in fact, the more specialized the individuals, the more dramatic the shortage becomes.”

The problem is not due to a lack of applicants. For instance, the UMN received around 1,700 applicants for 125 spots last year. Instead, the problem lies in the number and sizes of programs available. Those have remained roughly the same and do not meet the demand from those interested in pursuing veterinary medicine. Recently, however, universities have begun to add or expand programs.

One reason the shortage is greater in rural areas, Molgaard said, is that incomes for rural veterinarians are not as high as those with urban practices. Those pursuing a career in the profession must be sure their income can justify the cost of veterinary school.

Dr. Russ Daly, DVM, extension veterinarian and professor in the Veterinary and Biomedical Sciences Department at South Dakota State University, said the rural shortages vary. This can affect the availability of healthcare services for large animals, where shortages are greater.

“For at least the last decade or so, there’s been a realization that veterinarians who practice food-animal or mixed-animal medicine in some parts of the area have had trouble finding new veterinarians to come into their practices,” Daly said. “Many solo veterinarians in small towns are reaching retirement age, and a smaller percentage of new veterinary graduates are familiar with small towns, rural areas and livestock in general.”

This, in turn, affects how veterinary needs are met on livestock farms.

“I have observed that veterinarians who are short on help have had to adjust their practices to serve existing clients only, to limit their geography, to limit the species they work on, etc.,” Daly said. “This means that currently practicing veterinarians are scrambling to serve the basic needs of their clients (and) are not able to expand their practices into things that might profoundly help their clients.”

Molgaard said addressing the shortage of veterinarians in the Upper Midwest needs to include not just solutions that help recruit students interested in rural practices. Solutions also need to ensure there are excellent faculty available to meet educational needs.

“In the veterinary faculty workforce, the shortage has doubled over the last 10 years, and that is not getting nearly enough attention,” Molgaard said. … “We need to think ahead and consider solutions for the future, not just the solutions for right now.”

In Minnesota, meeting the need for qualified faculty is challenging because the licensing regulations and requirements are narrower than in other states. 

A bill in the state legislature aims to help solve that problem by broadening licensure rules. 

Last year, Molgaard and other industry leaders testified at the Minnesota Senate in support of the bill. The House plans to hear the bill this spring. Molgaard and her colleagues are hoping the public reaches out to legislators to voice their support of the bill.

“Because of this critical workforce shortage of academic veterinary faculty, we need the flexibility to hire qualified faculty,” Molgaard said. … “The current statute already allows our boarded specialist faculty to have an institutional license that allows them to practice within the confines of the university.”

The bill, if passed, would allow other internationally trained veterinarians who are not boarded specialists to have an institutional license to practice within the confines of the UMN, Molgaard said.

Having access to a larger hiring pool of candidates could help to ensure faculty positions are filled.

“What we are looking for is the same flexibility that other states have,” Molgaard said. “When we are so limited to hire qualified veterinary faculty, that makes it even harder for us to do our job to address the workforce shortages of veterinarians. … (The bill) is not controversial, but it is important. It is just a matter of updating the practice act.”

To recruit and support veterinary students, the UMN and SDSU have begun a collaboration to allow 20 students to complete the first two years of their doctorate program at SDSU and the last two years at the UMN. This raises the number of open seats each year in UMN’s program from 105 to 125 students.

“That expansion is absolutely aimed at rural and large animal, and it’s working,” Molgaard said.

Daly agreed.

“The notable aspect of SDSU’s program is that it was designed from the start to be rural-forward — the curriculum starts with the assumption that students will be practicing in rural areas on livestock,” Daly said. “This is quite different from the vast majority of vet schools, especially the newer ones popping up, that predominantly cater to the student with companion animal/urban practice interests.”

 The collaboration fits into the UMN Veterinary Food Animal Scholars Track program, which has existed since 2012 and addresses rural shortages in veterinary medicine. The program aims to support students, from undergraduate studies to the completion of their doctorate.

“The important thing about VetFAST is that the students — the applicants — know they have a spot in vet school early on in their undergraduate program, and they are committed food-animal students,” Molgaard said. … “We know from our data that they go on to practice in food-animal (veterinary medicine).”

Graduates of the UMN’s veterinary program become licensed for all animals. But data from both the UMN and the American Association of Veterinary Medical Colleges shows that about one-third of UMN veterinary graduates go into large-animal veterinary practice, which includes food animals, equines and mixed animals.

The key to the program’s success, Molgaard said, is the assistance the students receive to complete their schooling and finance it.

“They know there is a commitment to them, they know they have a seat waiting for them, and they can spend their energy while they are in undergraduate getting the experiences in food-animal (veterinary medicine),” Molgaard said. … “We provide the mentoring during veterinary school and all the hands-on experiences so that they are super qualified large-animal, food-animal veterinarians, and then they stay in the field. We have that data.”

Molgaard said the UMN is working to find creative ways to increase financial assistance options. One goal is to add more scholarships for students focused on large animals. Another is to broaden the scope for loan repayment programs that relieve some of the debt for graduates who opt to work in areas with higher shortages.

“That is especially important for vets who want to go out and practice in rural areas where incomes are insufficient to manage the debt that veterinary students have to manage,” Molgaard said.

In the meantime, getting young people to think about careers in rural veterinary medicine will help ensure that expanding programs are filled with quality students.

“We can do more to reach out to youth already interested in rural areas and livestock, such as 4-H and FFA members,” Daly said. “Besides the familiarity and affinity toward animals, however, is the fact that veterinary school is a rigorous science-based education. Local public schools can encourage students’ interest in the sciences — biology, chemistry, physics — and demonstrate how those subjects can be used to be successful in a career that involves taking care of animals and rural communities.”

The UMN reaches out to youth through various offerings such as its VetCamp, a hands-on session for students in grades six through 12 held on campus and in various communities.

“We do outreach to young people to make sure they are thinking about the veterinary profession, including young people who haven’t thought about the profession before,” Molgaard said. “We show what (a career in veterinary medicine) has to offer, all the many great things about our profession.”


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