Need a veterinarian? Travel may be required

Feb 09, 2024 at 12:02 pm by Observer-Review

veterinarian shortage rural new york
BY Karen Gadiel
When someone you care for gets injured or ill, getting medical help for them seems like a no-brainer. But when the sick individual in your household is your new-ish pet and you don’t yet have a family veterinarian—that can be more complicated than persuading Spot or Fluffy to get into the crate for the car ride of doom.
Statistics show pet adoptions rose significantly during the pandemic.
As the time of COVID extended, many people, particularly those closing in on retirement in the health care professions, including veterinarians, retired early. With a need for veterinary services greater than the supply of veterinarians taking new patients, pet ownership has become a challenge for many. Add in an emergency and you’ve got a nail-biter.
“In the next few years, possibly as soon as by 2025, 30 percent of pet owners will not have access to affordable veterinary care,” says Dr. David Lee, professor of veterinary medicine and entrepreneurship at Cornell University. “Low-income areas, rural areas, it’s going to be very challenging.”
You may have already discovered that for yourself, as I did two summers ago.
When my indoor cat snuck outside in the summer of 2022 for an evening rendezvous with a coyote—and dragged herself home right before the weekend—a dozen or so phone calls to area veterinarians in three counties found no availability for an emergency visit. Not having previously established a doctor/relationship with a veterinarian—a shortcoming of her humans, not the area’s animal doctors—left the only choice a trip to one of the two 24-hour-staffed animal hospitals in Ithaca. Those are, by the way, the Hospital for Animals at Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine and the VCA Colonial Animal Hospital. Both also serve as a resource for specialty surgeries and medical needs for local veterinarians as well. Their services are marvelous and compassionate, but costs quickly accumulate.
“It is complicated,” Dr. Lee says. “There’s quite a bit of controversy within the profession evaluating this. It’s not so much a shortage but [one affecting] regional areas like Central New York, Rochester, and rural communities.” Demand for veterinary care rose during the pandemic. With increased pet adoptions and people working from home, expenditures for veterinary care rose to 34 billion dollars annually. Many veterinarians felt overworked and got burnt out from long, extra hours, the occasional upset animal owner and compassion fatigue. Veterinary practices, like other businesses, have also seen a trend toward corporate consolidation, though it’s not clear how this complex issue affects consumers.
“It’s stressful, challenging, you’re in direct contact with a lot of people all the time,” says Georgie Taylor, executive director of the Schuyler County Humane Society. “You also have a normal cycle as happens in a number of fields. And it’s incredibly expensive to set up a new practice. Staffing becomes an issue. It’s difficult to get veterinary technicians [vet techs] and animal care staff.” Many veterinarians and vet techs graduate with a load of student debt.
Dr. Lee says the national roster of 28 veterinary schools has recently risen to 30, but it will take five to ten years for the pool of new graduates to begin making a difference. Veterinary technicians, who function as assistants and provide nursing care for animals, are licensed by the state, but limited by each state in the responsibilities they may assume. “Definitely there is some work being done in that field to assess whether there’s a different career track for vet techs to take on more routine care and more diagnostics, that’s in the very early discussion stages,” Dr. Lee says. “I think we’re going to see some significant changes in access to veterinary care, who’s providing and how that’s delivered.”
“Another thing happening is the advent of veterinary telemedicine,” Taylor says. “It’s not an answer to all situations, but a reasonable alternative for routine care. [And] I can envision a future where the income-eligible public might rely on animal welfare organizations for routine veterinary care, rabies and wellness clinics, worming, microchipping and spay-neuter services—which we’ve been doing since 2001.”
“We didn’t expect telehealth to progress so quickly in animal medicine,” Dr. Lee says. “As states get more comfortable with that, you’ll see more options. Obviously, it’s more challenging in animal than human medicine; animals can’t tell you what’s wrong. The other piece of this is wearable devices that can detect heart rate and temperature, so tele-triage groups can help someone assess, is this an emergency or can this wait? There will be more options for people as demand increases. Something’s got to give. And, he adds, when a veterinarian is able to work at home part-time, it helps with the work/life balance.
There is some evidence things may improve in the long-term, though veterinary care may look a little different in the future. Additional schools, and increased numbers of students in existing schools will bring more veterinarians into practice. Whether they wish to live and work in rural areas remains to be seen.
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