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Tuesday, February 26, 2013 - Friday, March 29, 2013

An Open Letter to the Veterinary Medical Community from the President of the AAVMC

David Segal’s February 24 article on veterinary medicine brought important public attention to economic issues affecting a vital health profession. Unfortunately, his presentation of worst-case scenarios paints a bleak picture that begs for context.

Building a narrative around a recent graduate with accumulated student debt that is twice the national average ($312,000) is not representative of most students ($151,672). Most students pay in-resident tuition, which is more than 50% lower than the non-resident cost of tuition. Also, the annual cost of attendance figure cited by the reporter includes almost $20,000 annually for expenses such as room and board, books and supplies, and personal expenses, including transportation, which would be incurred no matter what the degree.

What sets graduates of veterinary medicine apart from many of  those with other degrees is that they stand an excellent chance of gaining employment in their chosen profession. 

The employment data reported by the New York Times comes from the annual American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) new graduate survey, which is sampled anywhere from two to six weeks before graduation.  However, data from our latest research, conducted several months following graduation, show that 98.4% of 2011 U.S. graduates and 97.7% of 2012 graduates report being employed in veterinary medicine at least six months after graduation. That’s an impressive employment rate by any standard, and one that contrasts sharply with the dire picture presented in the article – and the nation’s 7.9% unemployment rate.

The starting salary data as presented in the article ($46,971) is skewed because it includes lower salaries associated with the approximately 30% of graduates who seek post-DVM internships and residency programs, which are paid training opportunities similar to what physicians undertake. The same AVMA data set describes the median entry-level salary for first-year practitioners as $65,404; not enough, agreed, but better. It is also important to note that these are starting salaries that increase predictably and positively as new graduates gain experience.

As stewards of this profession, we are very concerned about the economic challenges facing students and the profession and my colleagues and I in the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges (AAVMC) are working diligently to address these. Our students often pursue a veterinary medical education after having worked in clinical practices, on ranches and farms and in biomedical research laboratories. They understand the breadth and potential of the profession. To assure that they also appreciate the initial investment necessary to join any health profession, we have taken measures to develop an enterprise-wide “financial literacy” program that helps students take a more strategic approach to financing their education.  

Mr. Segal seems to assert that America’s long-standing love affair with their family pets -- and by extrapolation, their need for a safe food supply and advanced biomedical research -- is on the wane.  Our profession has developed its current capacity in response to 30 years of building public demand. The Great Recession was a game-changer, but it is short-sighted to disregard a profession that is cited as among the most respected in the health sector and that provides life-long career satisfaction for most of its members.

None of this is to belie the important thesis of this article: the cost of a veterinary medical education is high and veterinarians’ salaries should be higher.  Walk into one of our nation’s colleges of veterinary medicine and you’ll see it’s not much different than a human medical school (save perhaps for the skeletons used in anatomy labs).  Training medical professionals in multidisciplinary learning laboratories to provide the quality of care our society deserves is not cheap.

The rising cost of modern medical education has been made even more challenging by the fact that state governments have been inexorably defunding higher education for years.  From 2010-2012, for example, our colleges experienced $104 million in budget reductions.

As I write this, veterinarians are in  the field working to identify and prevent infectious diseases that could spark global pandemics.  They are on farms and in processing facilities, making sure there is food on our plates and that it is safe to eat.  And they are in laboratories helping find cures for cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and other shared maladies. Veterinarians are rightfully recognized as One Health professionals who contribute across the health spectrum to animal, human and environmental well being.  

The profession of veterinary medicine is an essential national resource.  We welcome a dialogue about our profession and invite greater public and private support.  As a first step, we need to make sure that our understanding of the issues is structured upon objective and balanced information, so that we do not deter or discourage talented students with the wherewithal to take on the challenges and rewards of a veterinary career.

Indeed, we should do all that we can to educate, motivate and support such students, for the sake of ourselves and our nation.

Deborah Kochevar, DVM, PhD, DACVCP
Dean, Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University
Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges