By Brett Yates, CEO Michelson Found Animals
Article originally published on August 1, 2023, by Veterinary Practice News
One of the starkest issues facing the U.S. pet care industry today is a shortage of veterinarians and veterinary technicians. In fact, by 2030,1 we will need 40,000 vets and 133,000 vet techs to meet the needs of our nation’s companion animals.
Consequently, it is not unusual to hear of pet parents waiting weeks for an appointment with their local veterinarian. This can lead to worsening conditions that then may require emergency care. Unfortunately, it is also not unusual to hear of wait times lasting upwards of 10 hours, or pets being turned away at emergency clinics unless their condition is truly life-threatening. This strain on the system became apparent during the pandemic, when pet adoptions skyrocketed, but the systemic issues predated COVID.
Having worked in animal welfare for many years, this author has watched the veterinary shortage become exacerbated to a breaking point, having knock-on effects in other aspects of the industry. While there is certainly light at the end of the tunnel, we should first ask ourselves: How did we get here?
How we got here
At the core of the veterinary shortage is the classic issue of supply and demand. Pet ownership has been increasing since before the pandemic and, today, 70 percent of U.S. households2 own a pet.
The supply of skilled animal care professionals has not kept pace with the uptick in pet ownership. One reason for this is lack of opportunity: there are only 33 accredited veterinary schools in the U.S. (for comparison’s sake, there are 155 medical schools3). These highly competitive programs admit, on average, between 10 to 15 percent of applicants (medical schools accept around 42 percent), and the debt graduates carry is not commensurate with their starting salaries.
Average veterinary school debt has skyrocketed to $188,853, while the median is at $99,000, adding a layer of ongoing stress to an already stressful working environment. Veterinary technologists and technicians, who play crucial roles in the success of veterinary hospitals, also carry financial burdens.
In the most recent National Association of Veterinary Technicians in America (NAVTA) survey,4 more than a third of vet techs report having student debt, and one in three report having a second job (usually full time).
What we can do
While there is not much individual vets can do to make immediate institutional changes to the educational system over the long term, the industry needs to work toward creating more affordable training options and opportunities for a more diverse pool of people (federal data reveals veterinary medicine to be the least diverse5 of all healthcare professions).
Until then, we should look at the other crippling stressors in the industry that are being made worse by the vet shortage. These are pain points we can tackle today by harnessing some of the impressive technological innovations that are just breaking ground in the field.
These are three tech-driven transformations the industry can undergo to benefit workers, users, and pet patients:
1) Investing in insurance
Money conversations complicate pets receiving care and heighten the emotions of already stressed pet parents. The fact is, 56 percent of Americans6 cannot cover a $1,000 emergency expense with savings; however, pet insurance penetration in the U.S. is still only at 2.5 percent.7 So, how can we get more pet owners to invest in insurance? One consideration is when the conversation around pet insurance is happening.
Pet insurance is often discussed during intake appointments, when pet parents are being told several things at once. This can be an overwhelming amount of information, and pet insurance is one of the easier things to put off for another day (or indefinitely).
While this is understandable, it should motivate veterinary hospitals and clinics to revisit the conversation frequently, stressing the importance and potential savings. This can also be reiterated by mimicking dental offices, where it is typical to be told what a future procedure costs with and without insurance, thereby highlighting the cost savings of an insurance plan.
It may also be helpful for pet parents to learn about and compare their options. There are examples of online marketplaces that can help close this gap in awareness, which also takes the onus off the already overworked staff members.
2) Implementing tech in the workflow
In recent years, we have seen the founders of pet startup companies evolve from passionate pet parents with a good idea, to serial entrepreneurs with visions on how to change the overall landscape of the industry. This is an evolution that benefits pets and their people. While workflow is a highly individual process, we are seeing innovations that help reduce friction across the board.
As with human telemedicine, the pandemic pushed the veterinary industry toward scalable access to pet health care through virtual visits. Although the laws around what vets can and cannot do over video vary from state to state, generally speaking, increases in telemedicine can free up clinic waiting rooms to only those pets who need to be seen in person, which can lessen exaggerated wait times.
Day-to-day operations could also use a facelift. Better patient management systems would help create smoother workflows, which benefits all parties involved: staff, pet owners, and the pets they all orbit.
Finally, companies offering solutions for early detection of ailments are emerging, which can help veterinary professionals be more efficient in their jobs. More telehealth combined with at-home diagnostics can help owners make informed decisions whether their pets need a visit to the clinic or not. They can also speed up diagnosis so more time is spent on how best to move forward with treatment.
3) Prioritizing mental health
Coinciding with the increase in pet ownership over the years has been a rise in the humanization of pets. Today, 88 percent of American pet owners8 consider their pets to be family members. This belief often manifests in heightened emotional states when dealing with vets.
In fact, 66 percent of small-animal practice veterinarians interviewed in a study9 by the British Veterinary Association (BVA) reported feeling intimidated by clients’ language and behavior. Moreover, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has shown that American veterinarians have high suicide rates.
Fortunately, there are a growing number of platforms designed specifically to help support veterinarian mental health and well-being. For example, there is an online mentoring program that provides peer-to-peer support, professional training, and access to mental health professionals, among other resources. The more vets are able to access programs such as these, the less isolated they will feel and the healthier their practices will be overall.
4) Bettering the work environment
Considering the stress veterinary staff report regarding finances, salary increases may help alleviate some of this pressure for those practices that have the means. More realistically, however, the sheer amount of working hours need to be reduced to help avoid burnout.
Finally, in addition to the options for telehealth, I believe creating the veterinary equivalent of a physician’s assistant would free up veterinarians from most pet-related visits so they could focus more on complex issues, like advanced health concerns or surgeries. Again, this is highly contingent on the resources of individual practices, but is worth considering.
Creating healthier work environments and more support systems for vets and their staff can not only reduce turnover rates, but can also inspire more folks into the field who may be otherwise turned off by the current state of veterinary medicine.
The vet shortage has led to long wait times at clinics, lagging surgeries at shelters, slowing adoption rates, and pet owners being more inclined to put their next visit off. However, by tackling the issues that prevent more future vets from getting in the field, create unnecessarily hostile work environments for the vets that are already in the field, and overwhelm clinics with more patients than they can handle, we can turn this crisis around.
If we work together, we can dismantle outdated institutions and harness new technologies to rebuild systems that work better for pets, veterinarians, and the people who love and care for them.
- Lloyd, J.W. “Tackling the Veterinary Professional Shortage.” Mars Veterinary Health. Mars Veterinary Health, May 17, 2022. https://www.marsveterinary.com/tackling-the-veterinary-professional-shortage
- Martyn, Monika. “Pet Ownership Statistics – Facts and Figures.” World Animal Foundation, February 1, 2023. https://worldanimalfoundation.org/advocate/pet-ownership-statistics
- Med School Insiders. “How Many Medical Schools Are in the United States? (2023 MD and Do Lists).” Med School Insiders, December 1, 2022. https://medschoolinsiders.com/pre-med/how-many-medical-schools-in-the-united-states
- Friesen, Malia. “Navta Survey Reveals Veterinary Technician Pay and Education Have Increased, but Burnout, Debt Are Still Issues.” NAVTA, February 14, 2023. https://navta.net/news/navta-survey-reveals-veterinary-technician-pay-and-education-have-increased-but-burnout-debt-are-still-issues-2
- Staff, INSIGHT. “Research Sheds Light on Diversity and Bias in Veterinary School Admissions.” INSIGHT Into Diversity, December 17, 2021. https://www.insightintodiversity.com/research-sheds-light-on-diversity-and-bias-in-veterinary-school-admissions
- Reinicke, Carmen. “56% Of Americans Can’t Cover a $1,000 Emergency Expense with Savings.” CNBC. CNBC, January 20, 2022. https://www.cnbc.com/2022/01/19/56percent-of-americans-cant-cover-a-1000-emergency-expense-with-savings.html
- Willis Towers Watson. “N.A. Pet Insurance Market More than Doubles in Four Years.” NAPHIA, September 9, 2022. https://naphia.org/news/na-pet-health-insurance-market-more-than-doubles-in-four-years
- Ballard, Jamie. “Most Pet Owners Say Their Pets Are Part of the Family.” YouGovAmerica. YouGov, December 13, 2019. https://today.yougov.com/topics/society/articles-reports/2019/12/13/how-americas-pet-owners-feel-about-their-furry-fri
- British Veterinary Association. “Vets Report Steep Increase in Levels of Intimidation as Owners Vent Frustrations during Covid-19.” British Veterinary Association, July 22, 2021. https://www.bva.co.uk/news-and-blog/news-article/vets-report-steep-increase-in-levels-of-intimidation-as-owners-vent-frustrations-during-covid-19