‘I’ve been working in this industry for more than 40 years now. Over the majority of that time, the amount that practice has changed has been gradual and pretty predictable. I can’t say that about the last few years.’ – Dr. Gary Marshall, practice owner and Thrive mentor
It has been a tumultuous year for many within this profession.
Like many other industries, veterinary medicine has had to rapidly adapt to a new way of life, trying to keep up with an influx of clients.
But what does the future hold for our profession? Is it bright? Or are we yet to see the full impact of the pandemic?
We explore this in this article.
The Lasting Impact of Covid-19
Covid-19 transformed the veterinary world in many ways. Curbside appointments spiked, client numbers increased, and vaccinations plummeted .
But how have these rapid changes altered the future of veterinary medicine?
For one, it seems that it has driven more vets to seek alternative employment. In North America, 28% of veterinary professionals would like to reduce their hours or turn to freelance/locum work. 26% of professionals in Western Europe feel similarly. This sentiment is felt most strongly in Australia & New Zealand.
While recruitment activity is high in all areas, it is set to become an absolute crunch in North America, Australia, and New Zealand. In these regions, around 52-54% of clinics are looking to expand or recruit. This is likely due to significant increases in clients and revenue.
Although 50% of practices in the UK have reported a rise in clientele, revenue was hit hard during the pandemic for many. This paradoxical effect was likely due to the number of strict lockdowns and imposed service restrictions. Things are looking up, however, with veterinary business looking to rebound strongly .
Telemedicine Takes Over
‘I think telemedicine will become more an integral part of our practice because of society’s demand for quick answers and immediate solutions to problems.’ – Dr. Juli Cappel, a veterinarian, and life coach
When the pandemic began, many practices scrambled to adopt new ways of working. For a lot of people, this meant utilizing telemedicine.
But is telemedicine set to stay?
Except for North America, most countries have pulled back on their telemedicine practices . Additionally, clashes (particularly in the US) with regulators have made it difficult to predict its long-term usage.
The reality is that telemedicine has a strong foothold in the profession. It has been growing, proving popular and useful enough to clients that it is not going away any time soon . The volume of investment into this sector is such that it is going to expand like a wedge (welcome or not). Our prediction is to be prepared for disruption.
The most likely evolutions to survive and transform the industry is the adoption of tele-triage tools by corporate practices and insurers. These organizations will likely look to divert clients upstream of transitional practice interventions- acquiring clients by ‘stealth’ or reducing payouts for avoidable claims.
We also see point of care, real-time continuing education having a huge role to play as virtual specialists fill the mentoring gap left by retiring practice owners.
But things look less exciting for interventions beyond the triage stage, where the severe limitations surrounding virtual communication make telemedical practices almost negligent, by most standards of care.
This, of course, may change as newer technologies develop, but for now, the cost, diagnostic limitations, and cumbersome nature of technology lag too far behind.
The Workforce Crisis
The workforce crisis has consumed a lot of media attention for the last few months- and for good reason. Increasing hiring pressures in the UK, US, and Australia have caused a lot of grief for many.
Though the pandemic pet boom was initially believed to have driven these trends, it seems more complex (as are most things). According to US data, pet adoption from shelters has not actually risen. This is significant given it is a primary source of pet acquisition.
This is not to say there hasn’t been a pet boom, but it may not have been as big of a contributor as previously perceived. It may be the case that pet acquisition via other sources has risen instead.
What has beyond any doubt changed, however, is productivity, demand, and turnover.
With vets able to see fewer clients than before due to curbside consulting, backlogs are longer than ever. The increasing stress and volume have caused an increase in staff burnout and turnover, putting further strain on those professionals who remain .
In the UK, a shortfall of vets due to Brexit has further complicated things, exacerbating an already strained situation- a perfect storm in many ways.
With no quick fix, some serious soul searching is required. Unless retention issues are addressed, the profession will continue to experience problems.
The jury remains out on where we go from here, but in all crises, great innovation arises. So long as there is a market, we predict supply and demand economics are going to drive the changes needed. Regulation may well have to change quickly to keep up.
A New Type of Working
The veterinary profession is entering a new era of working. As referenced earlier, in North America, Australia, New Zealand, and Western Europe, many vets are moving away from general practice towards locum work.
Between 2010-2019, veterinary professionals working in referral/consultancy practices rose by 6.4%, and more people moved away from mixed practices. The number of veterinary surgeons working in dedicated small practices also rose marginally .
These trends may be driven (in part) by the desire for more flexibility in the workplace.
‘Flexible and creative scheduling will allow veterinarians to fill their workdays in ways that suit the way they want to practice. Some veterinarians may opt for longer days, allowing for fewer days worked per week. Others may ask for extra support staff so that they can efficiently see more patients during their shift.’ says Dr. Samyra Stuart-Altman, co-owner of Central Veterinary Services in Oak Bluff, Manitoba.
‘For the first time, we are looking beyond the confines of a traditional work week and the outdated ideas of what your appointment schedule should look like.’
Putting Welfare First
Well-being has always been a big issue for veterinary professionals. The pandemic exacerbated an already exhausted profession, bringing veterinary mental health into the limelight.
‘Workplace wellness will be a term synonymous with long careers rich with personal and professional fulfillment.’ says Dr. Samyra.
‘It will be what heals the broken workplace culture that plagues so many clinics now and will be what nurtures psychologically safe leadership.’
We are already seeing action from veterinary bodies towards making the profession a psychologically safer place. In the UK, The British Veterinary Association (BVA) has published several papers on veterinary wellbeing- informing their wellbeing policies .
The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), on the other hand, has published several wellbeing resources and engaged or driven several initiatives to alleviate the problem .
Although these initiatives have good intentions, unless the fundamental drivers of burnout and compassion fatigue are addressed, their effectiveness will be variable.
The Issue of Accessibility
During the last decade, the number of vets who paid outright for their veterinary education (in the US) grew by 12-17%. As the number of these so-called ‘zero-debtors’ has increased, the number of vets with six-figure debts has risen too.
In 2020, the average vet had $188,853 worth of debt- a sizable sum. University debt has also increased in the UK.
This gap between zero-debtors, and those drowning in debt raises questions about accessibility and whether veterinary schools are outpricing low-income students.
Veterinary medicine is an already very middle-class, white profession. In the UK, for instance, only 3.5% of veterinary students are from ethnic backgrounds. This has only marginally increased since 2014 .
If students lack economic mobility, this is sure to inhibit the diversification of the profession. Vigorous posturing on social media is all very well, but it does nothing to address the fundamental fact that veterinary medicine remains closed off to many due to cost and other institutionally biased factors.
This needs to change. If the current generational cohort is balking at the work required to build a career, a deeper, more searching question must also be asked about whether universities are recruiting the right people into this career. The evidence suggests not, why do so many people who sign up for a vocational degree check out so quickly?
There are many opinions on this matter, but the conversation is currently very one-sided and incomplete if it only asks questions of the work, without discussion of the aptness of those selected to perform it.
Looking Forward to The Future of Veterinary Medicine
Although the veterinary profession is facing several challenges, it also stands on the cusp of a uniquely prosperous period.
If the pandemic has taught us anything- it is that nothing is ever certain.
‘I think that the veterinary profession is sitting on the precipice of some incredible changes.’ says Dr. Samyra.
‘I also think that we can all feel that change is on the horizon, though perhaps not all of us have considered what these changes will look like.’
We agree, rather than plow on regardless, the time is overdue for a ‘great re-imagining’ of what the future of veterinary medicine will look like.
The future should be imagined so we can course-correct and do the work necessary to find our way towards a sustainable future. Scary? Yes. But also, incredibly exciting.
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