Story and photo by R. Scott Nolen
Published: 8 Feb 2022
The AVMA provided updates on the U.S. veterinary workforce, mental well-being, and federal advocacy during the plenary session of the AVMA Veterinary Leadership Conference in Chicago on Jan. 7.
AVMA Chief Veterinary Economist Matthew J. Salois, PhD, spoke on the state of the U.S. economy and veterinary workforce. While practices face challenges in hiring and retaining qualified staff members, especially veterinary technicians, the U.S. gross domestic product is projected to expand by nearly 6% in 2022 after shrinking by 3.5% in 2020—“the sharpest trough-to-peak rebound in more than half a century.”
On top of the economic recovery, people are also rebuilding their lives. “What is clear is that as we continue to grapple with life with COVID, consequences follow, with burnout being among those consequences,” Dr. Salois said.
Practices feeling short-handed is adding to the burnout that many team members are already feeling.
“Well-being of our veterinary professionals remains a key priority for the AVMA,” Dr. Salois added.
Veterinary medicine is not alone in its struggles, as burnout is fast becoming an epidemic in many professions, including dentistry and pharmacy.
Rising demand for veterinary care during the pandemic is partly driving burnout and workforce challenges. Practice revenue grew an average of 11.4% between May 2020 and March 2021.
“When you look at the data on practice revenue, we have had a two-year roller coaster experience,” said Dr. Salois, adding there are signs that spending and visits are beginning to decelerate at a national level and looking more like pre-pandemic trends.
Inflation is also impacting veterinary medicine. Prior to March 2020, year-over-year price increases for veterinary care averaged about 4%. By December 2022, the average price increase was tipping toward 7%.
“At a 7% price increase growth rate, the average cost of veterinary care to a pet owner will double in about 10 years,” Dr. Salois said. “So clearly, we have an affordability challenge that needs to be on our minds.”
In addition to the demand-side issues, a number of supply-side challenges complicate matters even further, including practice inefficiencies, high rates of employee turnover, and an imbalance between work expectations and reality. That is, veterinarians want to work fewer hours—even for a lower level of compensation—but are, in fact, working more hours.
The reason why these systemic issues of efficiency, turnover, and dissatisfaction are so important, Dr. Salois explained, is because taken together they add to the current workforce dilemma facing the profession, with significant ramifications for well-being and the future of the veterinary workforce.
“A growing number of veterinarians are thinking of leaving the veterinary profession,” he said. “And when we look at the reasons why, the primary issues (veterinarians are reporting) are not difficult clients or wanting higher compensation or student debt or even the feeling that there is too much work—though I am sure we all want to see positive progress made on all these issues. Rather, the leading reasons come down to issues of mental health and work-life balance—a desire to better manage stress, anxiety, and depression.”
Workforce solutions must be focused on the long run, based on evidence, and centered on root causes.
“We need to look above just the demand challenges we are facing and look at the systemic issues of efficiency, turnover, and career dissatisfaction, and we need to be grounded in the data and the evidence,” Dr. Salois said.
If the profession responds with only Band-Aid actions that do not address root issues, the workforce challenges will remain, and the profession will continue to see negative outcomes.
The overload, stress, and pressure are real, and Dr. Salois suggested that while longer-term solutions are being devised, the following measures can be implemented at once.
The AVMA continues to focus on closing critical knowledge gaps in areas such as utilization of veterinary technicians, workforce modeling and assessment, and identifying drivers of practice efficiency. Information is at the Practice management webpage.
“We have strategic research initiatives aimed at delivering answers to these questions and have partnered with key subject matter experts to help us arrive at answers in a timely and evidence-based manner,” Dr. Salois said. “Outcomes of these research projects will all be delivered later in 2022.”
Jen Brandt, PhD, AVMA director of well-being, diversity, and inclusion initiatives, briefed attendees on AVMA well-being activities.
“This past year, we continued our extensive outreach via programming, consultations, and interprofessional collaboration,” she said. Some of the most-attended seminars included “Breaking the Cycle of Emotional Blackmail,” “Suicide Prevention and Mental Health,” and “Rudeness on the Rise: When Work Hurts.”
The AVMA convened roundtables on the impact of COVID-19 on the mental health of the veterinary team and on suicide prevention. The crux of the latter, Dr. Brandt explained, “was that we recognize the ongoing misinformation about suicide that’s being shared in the veterinary community triggers vulnerable individuals and diminishes effective ways we can successfully combat suicide. The goal was to focus on corrective information and the ways we can safely and successfully address suicide within the profession.”
Additionally, the AVMA expanded its library of cyberbullying and reputation management resources, available at the Wellbeing webpage.
Dr. Brandt said the AVMA will continue its focus on outreach, programming, consultation, and collaboration in 2022, the theme of which is well-being literacy.
She explained that well-being literacy is the consistent, intentional use of language to maintain or improve the well-being of oneself, others, or the world. It takes into consideration that while not everyone may be an expert in well-being or every domain of well-being, people all are communicators, so they all play a vital role in how they communicate on their teams.
One way the AVMA is contributing to healthy teams is through its Train-the-Trainer Wellbeing Educator Program, which launched this year.
“Effective communication is a cornerstone of healthy workplaces, and yet it is often an afterthought,” Dr. Brandt said following the conference. “By learning how to communicate more effectively, we can stop problems from occurring or escalating and help improve employee happiness, loyalty, mental health, and well-being.”
Program participants earn 5.25 hours of continuing education and will learn the following: the link between effective communication and workplace well-being; core communication skills that build trust, increase rapport, and facilitate open, candid dialogue; and how to conduct communication- and relationship-centered training in live and virtual settings.
The AVMA’s chief government relations officer, Dr. Kent McClure, spoke about the political climate in the nation’s capital.
“The last few times I’ve stood here before you, I’ve talked about the extreme partisanship in Washington, D.C. Well, nothing’s changed. It’s as polarized as ever,” Dr. McClure quipped.
Passing legislation in such an acrimonious climate is especially difficult as the big issues dividing Republicans and Democrats spill over into areas where the parties would normally agree.
“The good news is the AVMA has always been and remains nonpartisan,” Dr. McClure said. “We work with members of Congress across the political spectrum, and that is one of AVMA’s core strengths.”
State VMAs and other AVMA-allied VMAs see the AVMA as a trusted partner in the legislative and regulatory arenas, Dr. McClure added. Some of the issues in these arenas include telemedicine, compounding, cannabis, taxes on small businesses, and educational debt.
Dr. McClure encouraged attendees to participate in the next virtual legislative fly-in, scheduled for April 25. He later reiterated, “Don’t underestimate the impact you can have for the profession with a 15-minute meeting with a member of Congress and some follow-up.”