There are claims the veterinary profession is on the brink of a crisis, but the Steering Committee from the recent Vet Shortage Think Tank believes they may have the solutions. By John Burfitt
There’s something about the present numbers within the veterinary profession that do not stack up, and as the situation has failed to improve in recent years, some of the key players are more than concerned.
On one hand, the supply of new vets entering the marketplace has “increased substantially in recent years”, according to the 2017 Department of Employment’s veterinary labour market survey. It detailed that seven Australian universities now produce an estimated 500-550 vet graduates a year. And yet, the same report also stated that Australia continues to experience a serious shortage of qualified practitioners, revealing, “the proportion of vacancies filled and the average number of applicants per vacancy falling substantially from [2014’s] peak levels”.
Ask any practice owner who has attempted to recruit a new vet in recent times and be prepared for a flood of tales on the problems of doing so. According to the Lincoln Institute’s Vet Shortage Think Tank report, nearly 90 per cent of veterinary business owners reported unprecedented difficulty in filling vacancies, with 41 per cent waiting longer than six months to fill positions.
Attrition levels of those leaving the profession—from recent veterinary graduates to veteran practitioners—was one of the main areas of investigation of the Vet Shortage research. It concluded the main reasons for the exodus ranged from high stress and mental health issues through to excessive client expectations and poor financial remuneration.
Dr Michael Powell is one of the directors of the Lincoln Institute, and says the findings of the report offers a revealing insight into what is happening in the profession.
“I would agree that based on the data we’ve produced along with the other data available about the profession from other organisations, alongside amounts of anecdotal reporting, we may be on the brink of a crisis,” Dr Powell says. “What concerns me most is where our profession will be in the coming years unless we take action on attrition rates, and the causes behind them.”
Dr Gary Turnbull is a veterinary practice owner and fellow director of the Lincoln Institute, and agrees there are major problems ahead unless the findings of the Vet Shortage report are acted upon. He says Australia needs to look no further than to New Zealand for warning signs.
The problem of attrition
“Dr Jason Lowe is a New Zealand veterinarian who recently completed an MBA thesis on leadership in the veterinary profession, and his research suggested that with current trends, by 2029 the profession would be unsustainable in New Zealand and no longer meet the demands of the marketplace,” Dr Turnbull says. “That is only a decade away, and it doesn’t take long when you look through the data to realise the same thing could happen here, and we simply can’t allow that.”
In November, a meeting of the Vet Shortage Think Tank took place in Sydney, involving all major stakeholders of the veterinary profession—universities, representative and registry veterinary bodies, corporate and privately owned practices—to discuss the attrition problem. In the weeks leading up to the event, the Lincoln Institute circulated two vet industry surveys, and a total of 407 veterinary business owners and 685 employed vets responded.
Among the key data results were that 81 per cent of business owners indicated longer-than-normal vacancies place them under greater than usual hardship meeting the needs of clients, and 63 per cent indicated it negatively impacted their economic performance.
More than 70 per cent claimed they are experiencing greater than normal stress in their role as well as having concerns about the sustainability of growth due to the vet shortage. Around 64 per cent are working more hours than they would like because of the shortage and 22 per cent indicated they do not intend to continue to operate their business due to it.
Most concerning of all, 37 per cent were considering leaving clinical practice all together within the coming year, 44 per cent experience anxiety in performing their role and only 41 per cent would become a vet if they had their time over.
These numbers struck close to home for Dr Turnbull, who says he was familiar with such attitudes within his own team. “One of our young associates who’s been with us for 18 months told of three people from her graduating year who are already looking to get out of veterinary practise,” he says. “That is shattering, as these are young vets who have committed five or six years of study but have already had enough.”
Dr Powell says the specific details revealed in the Think Tank report are what need to be focused on, particularly the issue of attrition. “So rather than saying this is all about a shortage of supply of graduates, this data suggests this is far more an issue of a serious upswing in attrition of vets from the industry,” he says.
Eight-point action plan
An important outcome of the Think Tank meeting was the creation of a steering committee, consisting of senior members from various industry groups representing Australia and New Zealand including the Australian Veterinary Association, Veterinary Practitioners Board of NSW, New Zealand Veterinary Association, veterinary schools, registry boards and veterinary industry representatives from both corporate and private practice groups. The steering committee met in late March and created a comprehensive eight-point action plan working paper.
“When we see a suicide rate as a profession that’s four times that of the average in Australia and twice that of any other medical or paramedical profession, then that is the urgent issue.”
Dr Gary Turnbull, director, Lincoln Institute
Those eight points cover demand management, mental health management, selection criteria for vet degree candidates, the perception of vets within the general community, gender equality, enhanced remuneration, leadership training and coaching and the support of postgraduate vets.
Accompanying each of the eight points are detailed action plans for the various sub-committees to act upon, involving a wide range of partners throughout the industry.
“There’s no way we can address all these issues and affect real change without a huge multi-pronged, coordinated change in approach in a number of aspects of the profession,” Dr Powell says.
“But I believe change is possible, providing we leverage the support of all these key organisations and the people we have on board. We’ve already started to make headway on some of the action steps and have the support of contributors with a high level of expertise and industry connections to achieve our goals.”
Tackling mental health
Of the eight issues on the Steering Committee slate, addressing mental health issues within the profession must take priority, Dr Turnbull believes. In the Lincoln Institute survey data, the number one reason cited by veterinarians for planning to leave the industry was stress and anxiety.
“When we see a suicide rate as a profession that’s four times that of the average in Australia and twice that of any other medical or paramedical profession, then that is the urgent issue,” he says. “I’ve seen veterinary team members personally suffer with mental health challenges associated with work, and it’s only now that I’ve stepped back from clinical work that I recognise the impact compassion fatigue has had on me across my career. We have the opportunity to change people’s lives, so I think we need to do something about this right now.”
Among the mental health initiatives planned are more training for undergraduates in resilience, self-care and reducing the stigma of mental health issues; an industry self-care code of conduct; and business guidance on improving mental health. The committee also plans to work with the AVA’s Mental Health First Aid program which offers workshops and online learning exploring depression and anxiety within the profession, and also a 24-hour telephone counselling service.
Remuneration of vets
The financial realities of the profession were also explored. Compared to those in other professions with similar levels of skill and specialised training, vets are underpaid. The median starting salary of a general medical practitioner in Australia is $115,422 a year. By contrast, the average entry-level salary for vets is around $50,563, with some new grads on as little as $40,000.
“This is undoubtedly one of the key factors playing into the attrition,” Dr Turnbull adds. “And sadly, industry experts would suggest the average profitability for a vet practice is only seven to eight per cent before tax, and those margins are getting squeezed even further, so there’s not a lot left at the end of the day.”
Dr Powell says it is not a dramatic overstatement to claim the profession is currently at a crossroads, and the best way to point it in the right direction is for important discussions to be had.
“My concern is about attrition, and so my mission and that of the committee is to help turn that around, but that is going to take an industry-wide effort,” he says. “We will need stakeholders at all levels, business owners and clinic managers, practicing veterinarians and their teams to get involved and invest time, energy and some education into addressing this.”
What is needed, he states, is to effectively embrace a movement of change within the profession, to ensure a sustainable future. “We need to bring those issues to the surface and speak out about matters like mental health, finances, workplace flexibility and gender equality—the very facets that are contributing to the exodus taking place,” he says. “The more we address them, and commit to action, the sooner we can create a change not just for the future generations of Australian vets, but the ones already in our community who we risk losing.”
Dr Turnbull concludes: “This change is not going to happen organically. If the profession wants to continue, then it’s going to take the people currently in it to take charge of where we are heading. And we need to do this now.”