Do you have potential associates/replacements for your rural/mixed animal/food animal veterinary practice now and in the future? Are you hoping your “associate wanted” ad gets noticed by a bright young veterinary student who is getting bombarded by other offers (and often being told there is no future in rural/mixed/food animal medicine)? Or are you taking the bull by the horns, so to speak, and actively recruiting and mentoring that bright young talent to a profession that has as many rewards as it has challenges?
Rural and food animal veterinarians around the country are becoming increasingly concerned about the difficulty of recruiting new graduates into their practices because the allure of urban and companion animal medicine is hard to resist and because of the outdated perceptions of rural practice.
But there are so many bright sides to the food animal and rural veterinary profession. A recent 2004 survey by the Animal Agriculture Alliance of consumer attitudes about animal welfare indicates that veterinarians are the number two trusted professional (right behind schoolteachers and ranked above physicians and clergy). And, food animal veterinarians are the number one most believed source about the treatment of farm animals. Those statistics (from 1,002 consumers surveyed) underscore the importance of food animal and rural veterinarians to the society at large.
They may be too young yet for veterinary school, but it’s never too early to put positive images of rural and food animal veterinarians into the minds of kids.
Rural mixed practices are the heart and soul of the veterinary profession, says Kurt Walters, Buffalo Veterinary Clinic, Buffalo, Wyo. “This tradition has allowed us to be the most-respected profession in the country, and as rural practitioners, we need to be proactive and promote the opportunities that rural practice provides.”
Why the lack?
Realities about today’s veterinary students are that a majority of students are women, are from urban areas and are likely to pursue companion animal medicine. And unfortunately, along with those realities, also come the fallacies about today’s rural veterinary practices, such as they are in backward communities; are unable to provide good salaries; are without technological advances and can’t practice high-quality medicine like urban practices; and are providing mostly emergency services to poor-paying clients. However, it’s been shown that in rural areas especially, businesses such as veterinary practices are the backbones of the community.
More unfortunate is where veterinary students are hearing those falsehoods: from the profession itself. “Those of us in our profession who are telling youngsters by words and actions that we are not happy in our profession are our own biggest enemy,” says Brett Andrews, DVM, Burwell Veterinary Hospital, Burwell, Neb., president of the newly-formed Academy of Rural Veterinarians (ARV) (see sidebar).
Steve McDonald, DVM, Dry Fork Veterinary Clinic, Henrietta, Texas, adds that urbanization is a fact the veterinary profession can’t ignore. For example, he says, 90 percent of Texans live on 10 percent or less of the land.
“This means urban kids are going to continue to dominate student bodies,” he says. “Life outside the city limits is unknown to them. Practitioners or faculty who tell prospective students to seek another profession are very influential.”
Many of the poor perceptions of rural practice are based on the reality of rural practices from 20 years ago, says Walters. “Our message is that many of those things have changed. People are choosing to move to the country to live and operate their business from home, and they often have the expectation of high-quality veterinary medicine and the financial resources to provide for it. Progressive services are also being requested by progressive food animal producers. These changes all lead to a better income for progressive rural veterinarians.”
Walters adds that with better communications systems, such as the Internet and e-mail, the isolation that some rural veterinarians have felt in the past can be minimized. “Our basic message to students is that rural practice can provide them a good living, they can practice high-quality medicine and have a great lifestyle.”
Bob Gentry, DVM, Beloit, Kan., says because of the number of specialties at work in veterinary schools, often students rarely experience a “primary care” veterinarian who provides high-quality medicine and surgery on a wide range of cases. “Small animal practices are the closest thing resembling the college, so they gravitate in that direction,” he says.
Several organizations are concerned about the lack of veterinary students choosing food animal and rural veterinary medicine, but the United States and Canada aren’t the only countries facing these problems. A 2002 Australian review of rural veterinary services examined the role, availability and capability of rural veterinarians to meet Australia’s future animal-health needs. The Frawley Report indicated that lifestyle issues and the generally low returns significantly affect the long-term retention of rural veterinarians. The review suggested the more lasting solutions to this problem lay in building demand for rural veterinary services, and to initially accomplish this strategy, $2 million will be provided as seed funding for a variety of programs (see www.daff.gov.au/ruralvets for more information).
Kurt Walters, DVM, says that with better communications systems, such as the Internet and e-mail, the isolation that some rural veterinarians have felt in the past can be minimized.
While a recently announced U.S. study will take a comprehensive look at the situation and will no doubt give the industry direction in which to go to remedy the problem, some veterinarians can’t wait for the results. “Rural communities are having difficulty getting veterinary care, but I worry that there might be a bigger problem,” says Larry Moczygemba, DVM, South Texas Veterinary Clinic, Beeville, Texas. “I feel professionals — doctors, lawyers, veterinarians, etc. — serve as integral members of rural communities and help support the infrastructure, as well as contribute greatly to the sociological makeup of rural communities. Anything that leads to the degradation of the rural community is harmful on a much larger level than the fact that there might simply not be someone around.”
McDonald adds that veterinarians serve both as sources of reliable information and as sentinels in the arena of the health of the nation’s food supply. “If we are gone, who will fill these spaces?”
This is why the ARV was formed, and its directors are busy spreading the word. In 2004 alone, members of the ARV have visited over a dozen veterinary schools to talk to students about the benefits of rural practice, and its directors are planning to reach every veterinary school by the end of this year.
McDonald has visited several veterinary schools himself. The response from students has been overwhelming. “Many are thrilled to understand that a rural veterinary career can be as rewarding and as challenging as a veterinary career in any other field,” he says. “Many students are naïve about the profession they are about to join in general, and private practice in particular. Unrealistic expectations, both on the student side and the practitioner side are a leading cause of disappointment in the realm of first jobs out of school. We need to get to know each other. We just want to tell the students what a career in ‘flyover’ country is really like.”
Gentry first got involved because he needed to find an associate for his practice, but “as I became involved, I began to understand the need for students to see real-life practice.”
Getting your message in front of college students isn’t the only way to promote food animal and rural veterinary medicine. Moczygemba notes that with younger students, a simple image is enough. He suggests taking a look at your practice’s image. “Is the practitioner progressive with a clean, up-to-date facility and practices and lives in a professional manner? Or does he or she have a run-down, dirty place with the practitioner likely to be in the coffee shop griping about his or her business? Would a grade-school or middle-school kid be envious of our lifestyle? I think we need to live our lives as if people are watching us, because they are, and the image we portray is the image they have of our profession.”
To foster relationships and encourage veterinary students to explore food animal and rural practice opportunities, the ARV has set up a mentoring program. Veterinarians can sign up on the ARV Web site as mentors, and students can click on different states to see who is offering mentoring opportunities in different locations and disciplines. Future ARV plans are to develop mentoring modules to help veterinarians who are new to the idea.
A mentor is not, says Moczygemba, like a used car salesman talking someone into something that isn’t right for them.“We’re there to take the mystery and misconceptions out of what we do and be open about the life that veterinary medicine in small towns has to offer.”
Larry Moczygemba, DVM, says as mentors, veterinarians are there to take the mystery and misconceptions out of what they do, and be open about the life that veterinary medicine in small towns has to offer.
Gentry has made a number of career-day presentations on veterinary medicine to local high schools but lately has been focusing on veterinary students early in their veterinary education. “We need to create a comfort level with mixed practice early in their career.”
Andrews encourages all veterinarians to influence kids in their hometowns or surrounding areas up through college age. For pre-vet and veterinary students, the ARV would like to see one-to-one long-term contact between veterinarians and students.
To mentor, all you have to be willing to do is be open and honest with students and give them support, says Moczygemba. “You let the level of involvement and commitment fit you and what you are able to offer. We strongly encourage all veterinarians to become proactive and positive ambassadors to our profession, and encourage aspiring young people to follow their example.”
McDonald says many students have expressed discomfort with the level of clinical skills they will graduate with. “I believe an opportunity exists for us to complement their academic education by mentoring them, offering summer jobs as well as formal externships.”
You don’t have to have any experience to join the mentoring program, adds Andrews. “If you have the desire and enthusiasm to help a student understand why you like what you do, then you are mostly there already.”
A mentor’s level of commitment is an individual decision dictated by how much time a person is able or willing to offer. Whether you feel comfortable mentoring one or a dozen students is entirely up to your discretion. “We are trying to open the channels of communication between the rural practitioners, students and universities,” says McDonald. “Many successful rural practitioners never give feedback to their alma maters, and this is one way to do it.”
Benefits of rural practice
Many rural veterinarians are satisfied with their careers and proud of their work. “In this modern world, quality medicine and surgery is possible not only from the veterinarian’s ability but from shipping, technology, communication, etc.,” says Gentry. “There is nothing we lack.”
“I think rural practice lets you contribute to a community in ways urban practices never can,” says Moczygemba. “We are all about service — service to the animal community but also service to our whole rural community.”
In Wyoming, Walters enjoys the relationships with his clients and the fact that he is a valued part of their business success. “It takes time and integrity to develop a relationship of trust with clients. My clients are my friends.”
The variety of work and clients holds great appeal for McDonald in north-central Texas. “We must serve the wealthy as well as the more humble, and there’s a refreshing heterogeneity you wouldn’t get in a suburban environment. Ironically, often one gets to do more challenging cases in a rural practice because in many cases, referral isn’t feasible. It’s a matter of opinion, but it is possible to have a James Herriot-style practice and still practice quality, modern medicine.”
Editor's note: The author is editor of Bovine Veterinarian, where this article was originally published.
Mentors make a difference
Dorothee Janssen, DVM, had valuable food animal mentors and now returns the favor.
You may not realize the long-lasting effects you can have as a mentor. For one food animal veterinarian in upstate New York, mentors may have made all the difference in her choice of careers. Dorothee Janssen, DVM, Brasher Falls Veterinary Services, Brasher Falls, N.Y., entered veterinary school to become an equine practitioner, but she soon found out the atmosphere in the food animal barn was more to her liking. “Students were helped and encouraged to learn, whereas in the equine section they did more watching.”
After a three-month externship before final exams with Jerome K. Harness, DVM, Franklin Veterinary Associates, Greencastle, Pa., Janssen says, “What I learned from him was so valuable that I don’t think I would be the practitioner I am today without that experience.”
After graduating and doing post-grad work at Cornell, Janssen joined the Cornell Ambulatory Service and was associated “with some of the best veterinarians in the food animal field who not once turned me away when I asked one of the gazillion questions I always had.”
Janssen now returns the favor and mentors students. She also reaches out to youngsters on her client visits to get them involved and interested in what she’s doing on their farms. She feels her mentoring has made a difference in some students’ career choices.
She recalls some female students who rode with her while she was at Cornell. “These young women were poised to practice small animal medicine. They had grown up in cities and thought their inexperience with farm animals and the aspects surrounding farming, as well as their being female, would make it impossible for them to work in a farm animal or mixed animal practice. After learning that I was a city kid, female, and still quite successful and accepted on the farms, they felt encouraged to go and apply for positions in mixed animal practices.”
Janssen’s positive experience with mentors and mentoring has made a lasting impression. “I may have forgotten a large percentage of the information I needed to memorize for exams in vet school, but I haven’t forgotten much of what I was taught by my mentors.”
ARV mission statement
The Academy of Rural Veterinarians is a group of concerned rural practitioners nationwide who want to tell our story to students in all of the North American veterinary colleges. We want to return to the campuses with our message, which is that rural practice is a very viable career alternative that offers personal, professional and financial rewards that are in line with those of any other discipline that requires a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine diploma.
We will accomplish this mission by applying efforts on several fronts:
1. Make regular visits to the veterinary colleges and give presentations about the rich variety of possibilities a career in the country can offer. A vital part of the visit will be question and answer sessions in which we will be able to interact on a firsthand level with students and simultaneously educate students and become informed ourselves about issues students feel are important.
2. Mentor students interested in rural practice both via the use of our Web site as a communication medium and personally through arranged clinic visits and other means of communication.
3. Recruit like-minded rural veterinarians who like what they do and are willing to offer themselves as student mentors and make visits to their alma maters to participate in student presentations.
4. Widen the audience. Encourage all rural veterinarians to become positive role models in their communities and become engaged at the high-school level and earlier and participate in career days, 4-H and other youth organizations.
5. Organize a mail-out to all the nation’s incoming first-year veterinary students telling them about this organization and its goals and begin to offer them mentoring from the beginning of their student careers.
For more information and to sign up for the mentoring program, visit the Web site of the Academy of Rural Veterinarians at www.ruralvets.com, or call 940.538.5349. You can also e-mail Steve McDonald, DVM, at firstname.lastname@example.org, or Kurt Walters, DVM, at email@example.com.