WASHINGTON —More attention is needed to recruit and prepare the next generation of veterinarians for teaching and research positions as well as for jobs in state diagnostic laboratories, federal research and regulatory agencies, and the pharmaceutical and biologics industry. That’s according to a new National Research Council (NRC) report released today.

 Although the supply of veterinarians is growing, more than half of today’s students are focusing on companion animal or pet medicine.  The other burden that young veterinarians are facing is the rising debt associated with a veterinary education. This may inhibit graduates from pursuing Ph.D. training that would prepare them for academic careers, key jobs in the public sector, and some positions in industry, the report points out.  

Adding to the challenge is the fact that cost-cutting measures at universities have adversely affected the veterinary curriculum. Colleges and schools of veterinary medicine increasingly are unable to hire faculty to teach the “less popular fields of veterinary medicine and to support graduate research training.”  By less popular, the report means veterinary medicine associated with food-animal production, diagnosis and research.

"Companion animal medicine and its growing number of specialties that improve the health and lives of pets has been a success story, but it dominates veterinary schools' curriculum and resources, sometimes to the detriment of equally critical fields," says Alan Kelly, emeritus professor of pathology and pathobiology at the School of Veterinary Medicine, University of Pennsylvania and chair of the committee that wrote the report.  "We must ensure that schools train qualified veterinarians in sync with the diverse and growing array of societal needs."

 A potential shortage of professionals with training beyond a Doctor of Science in Veterinary Medicine could impact the supply of veterinarians to fill jobs involved with overseeing and enforcing food safety and animal health standards. But the report also points out an off-shoot consequence could involve a lack of related expertise to conduct research in human-drug development. Other areas where this could have an impact, according to the report are research to advance pet health, participating in wildlife and ecosystem management, infectious disease control, biosecurity and agro-terrorism prevention.  

Kelly points to food-animal production as an example of a sector that is changing dramatically in the U.S. and abroad, and consequently veterinary medicine demands are changing as well. He notes that large U.S. producers need veterinary services to focus on "herd health" while small producers, who have difficulty collectively supporting a full-time veterinarian, need primary animal care.  Having fewer veterinarians in rural areas raises concerns about the level of animal disease surveillance in the field, which is critical to the prompt detection of outbreaks with potentially massive economic consequences.

In developing countries, where meat demand is growing, crowding animals in hot, humid conditions places the health of animals, humans, and ecosystems at risk and is unsustainable.  "The fact that 60 percent of all infectious diseases in humans are of animal origin and 75 percent of emerging infectious diseases in the last decade arose from animals underscores the importance of maintaining expertise in other areas of veterinary medicine," Kelly explains. 

Addressing these challenges depends on the profession's commitment to promote and develop diverse career paths in veterinary medicine and on the efficient delivery of veterinary services, which in some cases may mean using veterinary technicians to extend the field's reach, the report notes. 

The report's recommendations center on partnerships among professional veterinary organizations, academia, industry, and government.  “These groups could form a national consortium or committee to focus on the economic sustainability of the profession in all sectors of service, education and research, with the intent of developing a national veterinary curriculum that could be delivered electronically or through alternative measures,” the report outlines. Other points that the report outlines, includes: 

  • Veterinary medical organizations and the deans of veterinary colleges could work to increase the profession's visibility, standing, and potential to address global food security.
  •  Establish a health-oriented think tank designed to advance sustainable food-animal husbandry practices, welfare policies, ecosystem health standards and the veterinary profession in the developing world. This could help future generations of veterinarians collaborate across professions, disciplines, and cultures. 
  • This body also could evaluate the competencies required of U.S. veterinary graduates to address the global challenges of food and water safety and security, the impact of urbanization on food supply systems, and the health of wildlife and ecosystems.

The study was sponsored by the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges, American Veterinary Medical Association, American Animal Hospital Association, Burroughs Wellcome Fund, and Bayer Animal Health Inc. 

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