It’s no secret that the veterinary industry is grappling with a significant staff shortage. Mars Veterinary Health estimates there will be a 15,000 veterinarian deficit in the US by 2030, which could have far-reaching implications for pets and veterinary practices alike.
Waitlists are growing and stress levels are rising as veterinary practices struggle to meet demand. But how did we get here? What’s causing the shortage? And could technology have a role to play in solving the problem?
- The veterinary industry is facing a growing shortage of staff.
- The shortage is caused by a variety of factors, including an increase in pet ownership, a lack of veterinary school enrollment, and burnout and mental health concerns among veterinary staff.
- Leveraging technology can help veterinary practices improve efficiency, foster healthier workplaces, and provide staff with a better work-life balance.
The growing demand for veterinary services
Demand is outpacing supply. Soaring pet ownership rates, coupled with growing awareness of the importance of regular veterinary care, have resulted in unprecedented demand for veterinary services - and there’s simply not enough new talent entering the workforce to keep up.
The numbers don’t lie. In 1998, 56% of households in the United States owned a pet, according to figures from the American Pet Products Association (APPA). By 2023, that number had jumped to 66%.
With an increase in pet ownership comes an increased need for pet care. Pet owners are spending more money on their pets than ever before, with pet industry expenditure in the US growing from $90.5 billion in 2018 to $136.8 billion in 2022 - an increase of 51.16%.
In theory, more pets mean more business for veterinary practices. And that would be true - if practices had the capacity to cater for the uptick in patients. In reality, growing demand for veterinary services has underscored the staff shortage issue, amplified competition for talent, and put more pressure on veterinary clinics that are already stretched thin with declining labor force participation.
Changing workforce trends
There are also workforce trends to consider. As the veterinary profession experiences generational shifts, workforce preferences have evolved.
Millennials and Gen Zers, who make up a significant portion of the veterinary workforce, tend to place greater emphasis on work-life balance and job satisfaction - two things that can be quite hard to come by in the world of veterinary medicine. The demanding nature of veterinary work and the prevalence of burnout in the profession have led some professionals to seek alternative career paths or reduce their working hours, further contributing to the staff shortage.
That’s not a criticism. Younger veterinary professionals are still every bit as driven, ambitious, and caring as their predecessors. But motivations are evolving and how people define success is changing. It’s not bad - it’s just different. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, more than 40% of practitioners who graduated during the last 10 years are thinking of leaving the profession, with mental health (33%) and work-life balance (27%) cited as the top reasons.
Financial challenges for veterinary professionals
While people generally don’t get into veterinary medicine for the money, financial factors still play a critical role in job satisfaction, staff retention, and career path choices.
Take education costs, for example. The cost of veterinary education has risen significantly in recent decades, resulting in substantial student debt for many aspiring veterinarians. Graduating with substantial debt can create financial stress and pressure to seek higher-paying positions to repay loans, potentially leading some individuals to choose other career paths that offer better financial prospects. Almost 9 in 10 (88%) veterinary professionals cite student debt as the leading stressor, according to a 2022 study by Merck Animal Health.
In some fields, the burden of high student debt is offset by a relatively high salary upon entering the workforce. For veterinary professionals, however, salaries tend to be lower compared to other healthcare professions with similar educational requirements. The average physician salary, for example, is around $225,000, while the average veterinarian salary is about $105,000. The financial challenges associated with pursuing a veterinary career can make the profession less appealing to some individuals.
Impact of COVID-19 on veterinary staff shortage
COVID-19 had a profound impact on many industries - including the veterinary sector.
Disruption to the economy and people’s daily routines led to fluctuations in caseloads for veterinary practices. Some practices experienced a decrease in routine appointments and elective procedures due to financial constraints, while others saw an increase in pet adoptions, leading to a surge in demand for veterinary services.
Global supply chain issues and the new safety protocol requirements saw efficiency suffer. Some clinics limited their services or reduced their operating hours, resulting in longer wait times for appointments. Workforce challenges arose, with some veterinary staff falling ill or needing to quarantine. Staff members struggled to cope with heightened stress and anxiety due to uncertainties surrounding the virus, contributing to burnout and staff shortages. Some left the industry and never returned.
While the pandemic is largely behind us, its impact on the industry persists to this day.
Creating healthier workplaces through technology
The veterinary workforce shortage is a complex issue that requires a multifaceted solution. Resolving the larger systemic problems described above is largely beyond the control of any individual animal hospital. However, there are many strategies that practices can use to build better workplaces and maximize their chances of attracting and retaining talent.
One such strategy is the integration of technology into the veterinary workplace. Modern practice management systems are carefully designed to help busy animal hospitals work more efficiently by using technology to streamline workflows and automate repetitive admin work.
For example, some ezyVet customers report saving up to 30 hours per week on payment-related phone calls alone. And that’s just one tiny part of the business. Extrapolate those efficiencies across the hospital - invoicing, diagnostics, note taking, customer communications, inventory ordering, etc, - and it’s easy to see how ezyVet can help veterinary professionals save dozens of hours every single week.
By reducing manual paperwork and simplifying workflows, veterinary staff can save time and focus more on patient care, leading to increased job satisfaction. Cloud-based systems also open up opportunities for veterinary professionals to access patient information and practice data from any location with internet access. Hybrid work options promote a better work-life balance for staff, while supporting better health outcomes for patients.
Of course, technology is not a cure-all. While it is a valuable tool for addressing the veterinary workforce shortage, it must be integrated thoughtfully and with a clear understanding of both its uses and its limitations.
Understanding the veterinary staff shortage is crucial to addressing the issue and finding potential solutions. There are a number of factors at play, including an increase in pet ownership, high student debt-to-salary ratios, shifting workforce dynamics, and lingering complexities leftover from the pandemic. Optimizing workflows through the use of technology can help practices operate more efficiently and partially offset staff resourcing challenges.