Labor crisis in veterinary medicine leaves pets at risk

A shortage of veterinarians in the US makes it difficult for people to find care for their pets. Here’s a look at the problem and how it affects New York state practices and the pets they serve.

Bethany Mosher’s 18-year-old cat Booga was diagnosed with gastrointestinal cancer last winter.

In June, when Booga’s quality of life suddenly deteriorated, Mosher called the Pittsford practice where her cat was a regular customer.

“I think it was on a Wednesday and said, ‘He hasn’t eaten in a few days. I think we’ve got to the point where he’s at the end of his life here,’ and they said, ‘We can don’t bring yourself in until next Tuesday. ‘”

The veterinary practice told Mosher that they sometimes have cancellations and should call back the next day.

“So I called every morning for the rest of the week,” she said, “and asked if there were cancellations and they weren’t.”

But on Saturday there were emergency services from 2 p.m. Mosher said she had arrived a few minutes early and the parking lot was already overcrowded.

Due to COVID-19 restrictions, not all of these people could crowd into the veterinary clinic at the same time, so Mosher and Booga had to wait for their turn.

They were in their car for three hours before the vet could euthanize the cat.

“I loved having the one-on-one interview with him in the car, but just the excitement of knowing this was going to happen … it was hard,” she said. “Sitting there and waiting for him to die was, I think, the hardest part.”

Mosher’s story is a particularly heartbreaking example of the aftermath of a crisis in veterinary medicine.

With vacancies in a number of areas, veterinary medicine suffers from its own labor shortage. The demand for services is greater than most practices can meet.

“It’s hard to say no to people, but at the same time you can only see so many pets in any given day,” said Dr. Mark Will, President of the New York State Veterinary Medical Society. “Otherwise you will burn out quickly.”

He said the COVID-19 pandemic sparked a perfect storm of circumstances: a labor shortage, staff turnover and temporary restrictions on non-essential care that caused deadlines to be backlogged.

“Emergency medicine is probably the hardest hit,” Will said.

He does this, in part, due to the fact that emergency vets are expected to work nights, weekends, and holidays and it has become more difficult to find people who want to do so.

In his own practice in the Mohawk Valley, Will said his vets work four days a week and are never on call.

“If I were to hire doctors here and say, ‘You are on call,’ I would never ask a doctor to apply,” he said. “Doctors no longer expect on-call duty.”

And in the current job market, they can demand a better work-life balance.

Recent ads looking for critical care veterinarians in Long Island offered signing bonuses of $ 30,000 and $ 50,000.

Veterinarians are also in demand in the Rochester area.

Dr. Susan Cousins ​​works as a fill-in consultant at a number of local practices when she needs additional help.

She has noticed a change in her job in the past 5 to 10 years.

“All the interaction between humans and their pets, and the human-animal bond, pets are becoming more family members.”

Cousins ​​said it was wonderful that people were taking more care of their pets’ health, but that means it was taking up more of the veterinarian’s time.

“It is difficult to see animals more in a 15-minute appointment window, so many practices have extended the appointment times to 20 and 30-minute appointments even before COVID, so that you take up fewer appointments, fewer staff and everything. Suddenly you go the place out, “she said.

Cousins ​​is concerned that some pets are not getting the care they need.

“There are some practices that even suggest that people go to Buffalo or Syracuse or Cornell for emergency care,” she said.

Erin Gwara from Greece never had problems getting her vet appointments for her pets until this year. Gwara has two dogs and three cats.

When she adopted Bella in May, the yellow Labrador Retriever had an ear infection.

Normally a general practitioner would handle that, but Gwara’s pet doctor couldn’t fit her on schedule for more than a month, so she put the dog on urgent treatment.

“They took their blood, they made sure they got a urine sample,” said Gwara, ticking a list of procedures. “(That) was great, but you don’t expect to spend three hours at the vet appointment.”

And emergency veterinary care is not cheap. Gwara said it was $ 95 just to be seen and Bella needed a follow-up visit because again she couldn’t get an appointment with her GP for weeks.

Nevertheless, Gwara may have been lucky enough to have her dog seen by a specialist at all.

The nationwide shortage of veterinarians and veterinary technicians has been a growing problem for several years and has only worsened since the coronavirus pandemic began.

According to the American Animal Hospital Association, the turnover rate among veterinarians is twice that of resident physicians and veterinary technicians have one of the highest turnover rates of any health position.

“Emergency medicine is currently in a crisis,” said Dr. Maureen Luschini, medical director and critic at the Veterinary Medical Center of Central New York.

Until last summer, Luschini headed a nationwide task force that dealt with the situation. She had to give up leadership because she was too busy keeping up with her job.

Luschini believes the high caseload, long shifts and irregular working hours all contribute to the fact that more people are not practicing emergency veterinary medicine.

But it also points out the admission requirements of New York. She calls them antiquated.

“We have these great doctors who have been teaching at American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) -accredited academic institutions for years who actually can’t work in New York state because they don’t have a bachelor’s degree from a US school,” said Luschini.

She said others were leaving the job because of burnout and compassion fatigue.

“For all the good you do on your shift, you worry about the patients you couldn’t see,” she said.

The task force, established by the Veterinary Emergency Critical Care Society and the American College of Veterinary Emergency and Critical Care, is looking for solutions, including ways to develop more mentoring for veterinary school graduates who want to move into emergency medicine.

One suggestion is to offer advanced certification for senior critical care practitioners who can take on this role.

Will believes that low wages are driving many veterinarians out of the field. “I would think veterinarians ‘salaries will likely have to double over time to get closer to dentists and doctors’ salaries,” he added, saying he speaks as a business owner and that his view is not necessarily shared by NYSVMS will .

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual veterinarian wage was $ 99,250 in May 2020.

The median wage for veterinary technicians was $ 36,260.

However, Luschini doesn’t believe that money is a driving factor in emergency medicine. “It’s really the hours and the stress of the shifts,” she said. “When veterinarians leave their job in the emergency room, they often say,” No money can keep me. “

Luschini does not know whether personnel bottlenecks can be resolved in the foreseeable future. In the meantime, she urges pet owners to take preventive measures.

She said delayed vaccinations had led to an increase in infectious diseases in the animals she treated, including the highly contagious and potentially fatal parvovirus in dogs and panleukopenia in cats, which was once a leading cause of death prior to the development of a feline distemper vaccine.

“Keep (dogs) on a leash,” she recommended. “Don’t let them heat up outdoors. If they aren’t vaccinated, don’t take them to the dog park.”

Cousins ​​emphasizes the importance of noticing subtle changes in pet health so that they can be addressed before emergency surgery is needed.

“If you open the door and just let the dog go out into the garden, you may not know if he has diarrhea,” she said. “

An established relationship with a veterinarian is also more important than ever today.

Will said about two-thirds of the emergencies he sees are pets that haven’t seen a vet in a year or more.

“I think the days of ‘I need a vet now and I can’t find one’ are kind of over,” he said. “If you don’t have that relationship with a veterinarian, it will be really hard to get access to veterinary care.”

Some practices in the Rochester Area use telemedicine services to assess the condition of a pet if they cannot get an in-person appointment right away.

Will said it would pay off if people schedule their pets’ routine appointments well in advance. He said that could mean adjusting expectations.

“If you compare an appointment with a vet to an appointment with your own doctor,” he said, “I know I won’t get an appointment if I don’t look six months.”

That makes sense to Gwara, but she wonders if people can keep up.

“Sometimes they don’t even care about their everyday things for their own health, you know?” She said. “It is sad because the animals will be the ones who will suffer.”

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