Pilot project aims to build rural vet service

Program is designed to attract and retain students by providing opportunities to experience life in rural practices

A new pilot project could help curb the declining number of veterinary services in rural Saskatchewan.

The Preceptorship Program has been launched by the Saskatchewan Veterinary Medical Association and the Western College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon.

Starting in May, it will run for 14 weeks and employ five third-year veterinary students in the province.

The program’s goal is to attract and retain students in veterinary practice in outlying parts of the province by providing opportunities to experience mixed- and large-animal practices in rural settings.

“The aging demographic of our rural veterinarians is increasing,” said Lorraine Serhienko of the SVMA.

“We’re not at a crisis point. We’re trying to be very proactive and starting early,” she said.

However, at least two large areas of the province are currently experiencing a lack of veterinary services with about a two-hour drive to the nearest veterinarian.

Since 2008, 16 veterinarian practices have closed and not reopened. Of those, 13 serviced rural areas. New practices have opened, but most are urban.

Serhienko said mixed-animal practices have increased since 2008, but those are mainly ambulatory practices that lack full service facilities.

“We are seeing more trends of job sharing, part-time employment and rural veterinarians aging,” she said. 

Of the 312 veterinarians practising in Saskatchewan in 2017, 55 were over the age of 60. In the 40 to 59 age range there were 124 veterinarians and 133 were 25 to 39.

There are currently 137 veterinary practices in the province with 88 of these mixed animals.

Last year, 202 veterinarians were female and 110 were male.

“With the needs of livestock and pet owners changing, more veterinary services are needed in rural Saskatchewan,” she said.

The Preceptorship Program, the first of its kind in Canada, is expected to address the challenges of hiring and retaining qualified veterinarians.

“We’ve tried to pick (students) for areas that have a high need or have a large service area. We picked based on what we thought would be the best to keep students in Saskatchewan and in those areas,” she said.

Wages of $10,000 in total over 14 weeks will be provided, with $3,500 from the SVMA, $3,500 from the practice and $3,000 from the Preceptorship Program Fund.

Farms or organizations can also contribute to the fund, which is tax deductible.

Deana Schenher is looking forward to participating in the program this summer and has been looking for a full-time clinician to join her mixed animal practice for a couple years.

“I think this is definitely going to be a good step in the right direction,” she said.

A WCVM 2007 grad, Schenher has owned and operated the Animal Health Centre in Melville, Sask., since 2009.

“We’ve come to realize that there seemed to be less and less opportunities to hire people and more and more vacancies across Canada (and the United States) for people in mixed practice, especially in rural areas,” she said.

“And I don’t consider Melville rural because we’re a city, but it’s still a very, very hard thing for us to get people into a rural practice.”

Schenher said she is not surprised that all five participating clinics have hired female students. A shift to more females has been evident for years, as has been seen in pharmacy, human medicine and law.

Most graduates choose to practice in larger urban centres over rural for a variety of reasons.

“Part of the problem is that many of the rural or mixed-animal practices tend to be either single or two practitioner practices and they feel that there is less interest in going into a practice where there may only be one other veterinarian,” she said.

Rural veterinary practices could do a better job of marketing, she added.

“The stigma of larger, mixed-animal practice has been that you work excessively long hours. It’s really hard work and it’s really unrewarding,” she said.

But, she said, those days have changed.

“So the changes in the cattle industry, equine industry, and anything that you’re doing large animal has become more evolved and clients are dealing with better education, better genetics, better practice management, which makes our jobs better.”

Laci Schmidt is one of the third-year students accepted and is expected to join Schenher’s Melville practice in May.

“I’m really excited and I think it will be a really good program because I always wanted to go into a mixed animal practice,” she said.

Schmidt grew up on a farm and enjoys working with large animals, but wants the variety of small animals as well.

“I wouldn’t want to just do large animal, but it would depend on the options when I graduate and see what’s available to work for. But for sure I wouldn’t just go into small animal. It would have to be mixed or possibly large animal,” she said.

“I’m so happy to get in because I really want to work in Saskatchewan when I’m done.”

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