The reasons for the current nationwide shortage of veterinarians are complex.
The problem varies depending on where you live. In rural areas, shortages tend to be associated with long working hours, lack of after-hours relief, and lower pay. In urban Australia, other factors are contributing to a loss of veterinarians from the workforce, including high stress levels, increasing workloads, lack of support, and emotional fatigue.
Being a veterinarian is a rewarding and fulfilling job. Lifelong connections are made with owners and pets. It's stimulating and challenging. You are always learning (veterinarians have to complete a minimum number of points of continuing education annually). And there is great satisfaction in helping pets to recover from illness.
But it's also stressful and demanding. Vets work long hours. They constantly make decisions under pressure. They work hard to communicate with pet owners. They deal with emergencies during already busy, overbooked days. And they support clients through the euthanasia and death of pets.
Recent research has shown the major impact of work-based stress on the mental health of veterinarians. The high suicide rate is a significant problem. There's a call for more support, but pressures on veterinarians are increasing. More clients and pets are coming through the door due to a surge in pet ownership since Covid. Owner expectations are changing. And the industry is evolving in ways that may not necessarily be beneficial to vets, owners or pets.
Across Australia, especially in urban areas, a new business model is emerging. Smaller practices are being bought up by veterinary chains, leading to a noticeable shift in the delivery of care for pets and owners. This new model may be having a negative impact on the retention of veterinarians in the workforce.
All veterinary practices are businesses that have to make a living. Successful privately owned practices generally employ a personalised approach in which care is tailored to the individual needs of owners and their pets. The focus of larger chains, however, is distinctly different. Many use set protocols to drive diagnosis and decision-making, with a bottom line of maximising profit. The veterinarians they employ are often required to work to performance-based targets, receiving bonuses based on delivery of services. This can lead to over-servicing like extra tests and procedures that are not needed.
The growing reach of veterinary chains means that many new veterinary graduates are now beginning their careers in these types of practices. Burnout is common. There is a generalised lack of support. Many are dropping out of the profession, contributing to the shortage of veterinarians.
This is a major issue, especially in a time of increasing demand for veterinary services. But what can be done about this? How can vets be encouraged to continue their veterinary careers?
One answer is to ensure that newly graduated vets are well supported in the workplace while they gain experience and develop confidence. In the right kind of practice, most new graduates can achieve this and go on to have happy, fulfilling careers.
It was suggested in a recent Sunday Canberra Times article that a Medicare-like scheme and mandatory pet insurance would help alleviate some of the pressures on veterinary practices. But pet insurance is not a panacea, and unfortunately it may lead to an increase in prices as well as over-servicing, as has been the case in other countries. While insurance may help owners to pay bills, clients need to be aware that, as with human private health insurance, you pay more for comprehensive coverage. And more people making claims will also lead to much higher insurance premiums.
Another factor contributing to the increasing pressure on veterinarians is the shift in client expectations. Most clients are wonderful, and they work together with veterinarians to provide the best outcome for their pets. However, veterinarians are seeing more clients who believe that money should provide answers as well as guarantee the recovery of their pets from illness.
Veterinarians wish this was the case too. But disease and ill health are often complex, and providing answers may not be straightforward. Better diagnostic tools can assist in the journey of diagnosis, but clear-cut answers are not always possible. The medical profession knows this too. Sometimes you can run all the tests and still not come up with a diagnosis.
The way forward is for clients and veterinarians to focus on an inclusive relationship in which there is a mutual understanding that both partners have the pet's wellbeing at heart. Most veterinarians are trying to provide care for pets to the best of their ability. Owner expectations also need to be realistic (i.e. money does not always generate the desired result).
Patience, communication and trust are paramount, of course. If you don't trust your vet, find another one. But be aware: the perfect veterinarian never existed. Vets do their job because they love it, not to make a fortune or to be yelled at and abused because they didn't get the outcome a client was hoping for. Above all, remember that vets are people too. They do their best, but they can't perform miracles.
- Karen Viggers has been a veterinarian for 34 years. She works at Brudine Veterinary Hospital in Charnwood where she has been part of the team for a very happy 15 years.