Why One Veterinarian Says There May Soon Be A Shortage Of Equine Practitioners - And How You Can Help - Horse Racing News | Paulick Report

Why One Veterinarian Says There May Soon Be A Shortage Of Equine Practitioners — And How You Can Help

It's no secret that employers across all industries are hard-pressed for help right now. Dr. Debbie Spike-Pierce, president and CEO of Rood + Riddle Equine Hospital, worries that soon equine veterinarians won't just have a tough time finding people to work for them – their clients may have a tough time finding someone to treat their horse.

Spike-Pierce presented some unsettling statistics at the clinic's annual client education seminar last month and shared her thoughts on why equine practice is in particular trouble. She cited a study by the American Veterinary Medical Association that found only about 1 percent of veterinary students are planning to go into equine practice – down from 4 percent in the mid-2000s. In the population of existing veterinarians, equine vets make up 5.6 percent of the total. Spike-Pierce also said that within five years post-graduate, 50 percent of equine veterinarians will leave equine practice.

There are lots of reasons for this, but they all boil down to burnout. Spike-Pierce said that veterinarians surveyed by the American Association for Equine Practitioners (AAEP) report their physical health as pretty good – impressive, considering how physical their jobs often are. They self-reported their mental health as much less favorable, with 18% of male equine veterinarians classifying their mental health as fair to poor, and 25% of female equine veterinarians saying the same.

The Paulick Report ran an open letter from Dr. Rebecca Mears about the mental health of veterinarians earlier this year, specifically focusing on the “Not One More Vet” or NOMV movement aimed at preventing veterinary suicide.

(You can read that letter here.)

As Mears explained, recent veterinary school graduates begin their careers under a mountain of debt, often taking low-paying jobs in their first years out of school as they work to get established. Those who go into mobile practice for themselves (like many equine veterinarians) have even greater start-up debt.

Veterinary practices of all sorts have taken to social media in recent months, expressing that they are dealing with shorter tempers than normal from clients, combined with smaller staffs to help manage nursing care and caseloads. Social media has also enabled a dissatisfied client to put a practice on blast, whether or not their criticisms feel true or fair to the veterinarian. After a long day dealing with sick animals and angst-ridden clients, finding a negative review on social media can often feel like the last straw.

Equine practice can be even more demanding, since as Spike-Pierce points out, it doesn't have set hours the way a dog or cat clinic would.

“We are seeing these same issues in equine practice as we are seeing in general veterinary practice, but we're also seeing people leave equine practice and go to small animal practice,” said Spike-Pierce.

Oftentimes, she said she hears people dismiss these issues by saying that equine practice is “a lifestyle” – which she agrees is true.

“It is a lifestyle,” she said. “Actually it's one I pretty much enjoyed. What I loved about equine practice was feeling like I could take my kids with me. I went on calls with my dad growing up. The equine industry as a whole is very open to having kids be there. Oftentimes I think the reason we're working with horses is because we were there when our parents were.”

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But not everyone wants to buy into having that round-the-clock lifestyle for most of their lives, and telling young veterinarians that they should work seven days a week or get out of the business seems to result in many choosing the latter. Spike-Pierce said the culture around horses is your job is 24/7 because horses need care 24/7 – but that care doesn't always have to come from the same person.

One reason equine veterinarians may make the switch to small animal practice is that dog and cat clinics often share emergency duty, or allow clinicians to work a smaller number of longer days each week so they get some predictable off time. Spike-Pierce said there's some degree of client education involved in a set-up like that for horse veterinarians — clients need to know who's on duty for after-hours calls on a particular night, or they need to be ok with having their call forwarded to a different doctor sometimes. She has seen some smaller practices experiment with this, with some success.

“Our younger veterinarians are asking for time,” she said. “They want to have time away from work, but they're able and willing to work extra hard when they are working. They want that separation.”

Splitting up duties, especially emergency duties, by geographic region can be a game changer for veterinarians' stress levels, too —  and it can reduce the wait for a client who's dealing with an animal in distress.

“If you all have ideas, that's welcome,” Spike-Pierce told the audience. “It's something we're going to need to address in the future to be able to continue to serve animals.

“If you look at the numbers, it just doesn't work if it continues on the same trend. So please, thank your veterinarian, and please work with them to give them the time they need.”

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