Vet shortage hits critical level

An international shortage of veterinarians has reached critical levels.

Livestock producers, veterinarians and government are talking but there is no single solution to address the areas of greatest need, such as filling positions at rural practices.

“It is a challenge encouraging people to go into veterinary medicine but even more to become a large animal vet,” said Ryan Kasko, past-president of the Alberta Cattle Feeders Association.

Discussions have come up with a number of solutions but all require money.

“When the provincial government pulled funding away from the University of Saskatchewan, that was an area the Alberta Cattle Feeders were not encouraged by. We think we should be investing in U of C for sure, but also in the University of Saskatchewan when we have a shortage,” he said.

Producers say the problem was exacerbated when the Alberta government diverted $10 million from the Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM) to the University of Calgary Veterinary Medicine (UCVM) program but there was no net increase in veterinarians.

Besides graduating more people, Kasko suggested a community may need to offer an incentive to attract a new vet, such as free rent on a clinic or other help.

Some consideration should be given to an applicant’s background. A person from the country may be willing to return to a rural community, said Rich Smith, manager of the Alberta Beef Producers.

“Someone who grows up in Calgary is not likely going to want to practise in Cereal,” he said.

There may also need to be regulatory changes to allow veterinarian technicians to take on more of the workload.

“There are many instances where the technicians could be opened up to do more,” said Kelly Fraser-Smith, president of the Alberta Beef Producers and a rancher from Pine Lake.

“Most of our producers have a great working relationship with their vets and have a level of trust with their technicians. There are definitely some instances where I would be just as comfortable with our techs as our vet,” she said.

They also understand local veterinarians are overworked in large service areas. They struggle to fulfill commitments for after-hours calls or emergency care as mandated by the federal government.

Interviews with the Alberta Veterinary Medicine Association and deans of two western schools show they are aware of the problems that have been discussed with ministries of agriculture, labour, immigration, municipalities and producer groups.

“They are all aware of the fact we have a shortage of veterinarians in Western Canada. It is right across the world,” said Dr. Darrell Dalton, registrar of the Alberta Veterinary Medical Association.

The problem has worsened in the last three to four years.

National surveys are underway to assess the shortage and longer term needs. The ABVMA just received a grant to look at the veterinary work force and the anticipated need in the next 20-30 years.

The association is also looking at expanding the role of technologists to free up the practitioner’s time. They could be trained to do pregnancy checks with ultrasound for example.

Recruiting foreign practitioners from a small pool is a challenge and it is helpful if they come from an accredited school. If they come from an accredited school they can write the appropriate examinations and then join the workforce as licensed veterinarians within a year. Those from unaccredited schools need more time and training.

“Right now is the golden age of veterinary medicine. You can get a job anywhere in the world,” Dalton said.

“We are not going to be able to attract a ton of veterinarians from around the world.”

The better solution is to increase funding to the western schools in Calgary and Saskatoon to train more people.

“The initial problem was we were not graduating veterinarians at a rate to keep up with the population growth of the country,” Dalton said.

It takes time to generate more qualified people, he said.

“When we start looking at education and if the government decided to open the purse strings for veterinarians in Alberta, I am not sure they could implement it this year. It is four years to graduate a veterinarian,” he said.

As well, as a career choice, a veterinarian is paid a living wage but overhead and other costs are high.

“A young veterinarian graduating from WCVM or UCVM, their average debt load is around $70,000-$80,000 and that is about what they will make in their first year of practice,” said Dalton.

There are more jobs than people at this time.

“The shortage is more acute in the small rural communities linked to the food animal production enterprise. But, if you talk to any small animal vet in Calgary, Red Deer or Edmonton they will tell you they are also facing difficulties finding veterinarians to take up jobs,” said Dr Baljit Singh, dean at the University of Calgary.

Expansion of existing schools is another approach without incurring higher costs.

The Calgary school opened in 2006 and part of its mandate was to train large animal veterinarians. The program is set to grow from 30 to 50 students per year. It could grow to 70 because the school has the capacity to accommodate extra people.

The province has also granted money to recruit eight new professors and more support staff.

During an industry round table held last November in Calgary it was agreed action is needed.

More graduates are needed to fill the demand but also to replace retiring practitioners.

“In the rural areas it becomes an issue because if there are not veterinarians moving into the smaller communities to whom do they sell their business in which they have built a certain amount of equity they were hoping to take out for their retirement,” Singh said.

At WCVM, class sizes are about 80 people. The college could increase by 10 people without increasing staff or adding to the facility, said dean Dr. Doug Freeman.

He has also met with government and industry and understands the needs in rural Canada.

“Over half of our graduates do go into rural mixed practice. The trend is they will leave in a relatively short period of time so we are working on a variety of angles including veterinary communities to work on how to recruit and retain veterinarians in those communities,” he said.

This is also a shortage of registered technicians and there are ongoing efforts to increase their numbers, as well as possibly expand their duties.

The schools have no problem attracting talent.

“We have not seen a lack of interest. Across North America we see a generally increasing pool of candidates. It is incredibly competitive to get into the Western College of Veterinary Medicine. On average we have eight applicants per spot and so we turn away a lot of really talented people who want to be veterinarians,” Freeman said.

The candidate has to have at least two years of university in order to apply but many already have a degree.

A pilot is being considered to work with foreign-trained vets who have moved to Saskatchewan to encourage them to stay.

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