An imminent need for veterinary medical educators: are we facing a crisis?

Michael D. Lairmore School of Veterinary Medicine, University of California-Davis, Davis, CA

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 DVM, PhD, DACVP, DACVM https://orcid.org/0000-0002-4529-7480
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Christopher Byers CriticalCareDVM, Omaha, NE

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Sarah Eaton College of Veterinary Medicine, University of Arizona, Oro Valley, AZ

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Jane E. Sykes School of Veterinary Medicine, University of California-Davis, Davis, CA

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 BVSc, PhD, MPH, MBA, DACVIM
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Steven Marks Department of Animal and Veterinary Sciences, Clemson University, Clemson, SC

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Kathryn M. Meurs College of Veterinary Medicine, North Carolina State University, Raleigh, NC

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 DVM, PhD, ACVIM

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Abstract

A potential emerging shortage of veterinary medical educators requires the profession to acknowledge and understand the factors leading to this outcome. Expanding class sizes within existing schools and colleges of veterinary medicine and the expected expansion of new programs seeking AVMA–Council of Education accreditation have heightened the need to address an impending shortage of veterinary medical educators. A solution-oriented approach that accurately projects educator workforce needs and identifies factors contributing to the shortage requires effective collaboration across various partnering organizations to develop innovations in pedagogy and educational delivery methods. The veterinary profession must also identify and reduce disincentives that deter students and post-DVM trainees from pursuing careers in education. Finally, efforts at the state and federal level are critical to advocate for financial support and incentives for expansion of the veterinary medical educator workforce. Through these collective approaches and partnerships, the veterinary medical educator workforce can be strengthened to overcome obstacles for educating the next generation of veterinarians to meet societal needs.

Abstract

A potential emerging shortage of veterinary medical educators requires the profession to acknowledge and understand the factors leading to this outcome. Expanding class sizes within existing schools and colleges of veterinary medicine and the expected expansion of new programs seeking AVMA–Council of Education accreditation have heightened the need to address an impending shortage of veterinary medical educators. A solution-oriented approach that accurately projects educator workforce needs and identifies factors contributing to the shortage requires effective collaboration across various partnering organizations to develop innovations in pedagogy and educational delivery methods. The veterinary profession must also identify and reduce disincentives that deter students and post-DVM trainees from pursuing careers in education. Finally, efforts at the state and federal level are critical to advocate for financial support and incentives for expansion of the veterinary medical educator workforce. Through these collective approaches and partnerships, the veterinary medical educator workforce can be strengthened to overcome obstacles for educating the next generation of veterinarians to meet societal needs.

Viewpoint articles represent the opinions of the authors and do not represent AVMA endorsement of such statements.

Introduction

As the veterinary profession seeks to address societal needs, a potential crisis is unfolding. The concern for the recruitment and retention of veterinary medical educators has emerged concurrent with other issues facing our profession. Without intervention, we feel the looming shortage of veterinary medical educators required to instruct students and house officers, contribute to new knowledge discovery, and serve the public, will worsen. The gap is rapidly widening as class sizes in existing schools and colleges of veterinary medicine are increased and new schools are established – at least 11 new schools have sought or plan to seek AVMA accreditation in the last 2 years.1 The AVMA Council on Education (COE) standards 8 and 10 set faculty requirements and student exposure to scholarly activity, respectively, for institutions seeking accreditation.2 Standard 8 states, “Faculty numbers and qualifications must be sufficient to deliver the educational program and fulfill the mission of the college.” This includes “faculty who have education, training, expertise, professional development, or a combination thereof, appropriate for the subject matter.”2 Standard 10 indicates “Continuing scholarly productivity within the college must be demonstrated and the college must provide access to opportunities for any interested students in the professional veterinary program to be exposed to or participate in on-going high-quality research.”2 These parameters and others related to COE accreditation will, by necessity, be linked to the availability of a robust faculty workforce to recruit into an institution seeking accreditation. Addressing this complex issue, in our opinions, requires a multipronged approach that involves 1) development of more accurate projections of workforce needs, 2) identification of factors contributing to the shortage, 3) effective collaboration across veterinary organizations and with organizations in other healthcare professions, and 4) innovations in pedagogy and educational delivery methods. Additionally, we feel the profession must develop strategies to attract, train, and retain veterinary medical educators from a variety of backgrounds. Veterinary medical educators (hereafter referred to as educators for simplicity) are those employed to teach pre-clinical and clinical knowledge and skills at academic institutions or in private practice. This includes those with veterinary degrees, other professional degrees (eg, JDs, MDs), board-certified veterinary specialists, and those with other advanced degrees. Credentialed veterinary technicians/technologists/nurses also play important roles in the education of DVM students, as well as interns and residents (also referred to as house officers). Educators also have had a significant role in discovery—working to solve the problems in animal and human health, including improvement of the educational process. We propose also that the quality of the faculty often determine the successful completion of the missions of veterinary medical institutions. Educators, properly mentored, nurtured, and deployed train our veterinary students, graduate students, house officers, fellows, and serve as role models for careers in a variety of occupations in academia, private practice, research institutions, industry, or government organizations.

Factors Influencing Recruitment and Retention

There are potentially many factors that contribute to pressures to maintain a quality and robust veterinary medical educator workforce. It is our belief that salary and benefits may be a significant factor in the decision of veterinary professionals to depart from careers in education. In our experiences, this is particularly true for veterinary specialties focused on patient care (eg, cardiology, ophthalmology, internal medicine, theriogenology, surgery) where significant differences in salary and benefits may exist between those offered in private practice. Academic institutions are sometimes unable to offer the large signing bonuses some private practices have begun to offer to attract veterinarians. In our collective opinion, increases in compensation for primary care practitioners in private practice also threaten to siphon from academia individuals who wish to explore a career in education.3 This is of particular concern given the growing need for primary care educators as the profession becomes more specialized, and it becomes increasingly difficult to compress specialist knowledge into the veterinary curriculum. Further increases in salaries for those who deliver primary care in private practice may occur because of increased client demand for veterinary care, more widespread uptake in pet health insurance, and improved availability of competitive benefits packages due to growth of corporate veterinary practice ownership.3 In our opinion, there is a paucity of data on compensation and benefit packages across the spectrum of career opportunities available for veterinary graduates. To recruit and retain educators it is critical to determine and understand market informed compensation packages (salaries and benefits such as retirement and healthcare plans). In a recent survey of veterinary professionals conducted by the American Animal Hospital Association,4 salary was cited as the top reason for veterinary professionals (including paraprofessionals) to leave the profession. There are limited publicly available salary data comparing those that pursue educational careers versus other career paths. Educators’ mean and median salaries are reported for those in species-specific or practice areas by the American Association of Veterinary Medical Colleges (AAVMC).5 Detailed salary data for those that pursue specific board-certified veterinary specialties and choose to become educators are rarely publicly reported. Although university salaries may be very competitive for many individuals, from nonspecialists to specialists, they may be less attractive to individuals starting their career with significant student debt. Increasing opportunities to help reduce student debt and informing trainees about existing opportunities including the national Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program6 for individuals working in a state university or non-profit setting may be helpful.

Understanding factors that motivate veterinarians with potential for careers in education, beyond just compensation, is also important for attracting and retaining educators. These factors include sense of purpose, peer recognition, opportunities to gain experience and professional growth, and work-life balance. From our experience, educators may also value factors like geographic location and remote work opportunities, as well as ability to be close to family and friends. We have found that educator recruitment and retention should be viewed as a long-term commitment to the individual that begins on the first day of employment and encompasses their sense of the workplace’s commitment to their success, as well as their sense of belonging, value, and engagement as part of the institution’s community. It is our opinion that the strict structural guidelines regarding workload and promotion opportunities of many academic institutions may also be discouraging to new veterinary graduates.

Supporting mental health and wellbeing is essential for all those in training to become veterinary professionals, and future educators are no exception. We feel that to improve recruitment and retention of educators, training programs need to consider quality of life as a major factor influencing career choices. This includes recognizing and understanding the impact of cultural and family factors on decisions to become an educator. For instance, educators who lack support for childcare or eldercare responsibilities may be more likely to leave academia than educators that are not facing such pressures. From our experience, creating flexible work arrangements, such as temporary ability to work part-time, may help with retention, although this may not be successful if salaries for such positions are not competitive with private practice. Similarly, a lack of a welcoming and supportive community can discourage potential educators from entering the field.

Developing the Pipeline for Educators

To address the shortage of future educators, it is our opinion that the veterinary profession must identify and reduce disincentives that deter trainees from pursuing careers in education. Student debt, low house officer salaries, and lack of opportunities to offset educational debt make careers in veterinary education less appealing, especially those facing the additional training required for specialization and some educational roles. The design of recruitment programs for the next generation of educators should consider factors like generational trends, research training, multicultural beliefs and preferences, societal influences, and individual career aspirations. In our opinion, many residents who do not earn a MS or PhD may feel hesitant to pursue academic careers. This reluctance may be due to feeling intimidated by research training or an insecurity that they cannot be successful in academic career without an advanced graduate degree. We feel that early exposure and education during residency training about to the role that DVMs as educators is important to attract those interested in academic careers. It is possible that some veterinarians may not pursue an academic career due to the changing environment in education (eg, expanded use of technology and use of asynchronous educational models). As the veterinary profession becomes more diverse, the expectations to understand these evolving cultural issues will likely increase.

We feel that student recruitment plans should provide a transparent picture of academic careers, including the evolving landscape related to changing modes of instruction (eg, online, asynchronous learning, distributive models, etc), challenges associated with obtaining research funding (if applicable), and other current issues educational institutions face. The development of varied teaching models can adapt well to different learning processes, but educators may find it challenging to become proficient in all of them. As educational leaders and administrators of teaching institutions implement different educational models designed for veterinary students, we propose that it is important to ensure adequate training of individuals using those models, as well as a platform for critique and evaluation. As an extension of teaching models, various programs for grading, evaluation, assignment submission, student–educator communication, and self-paced learning have been developed. We suggest that these programs require support, training, and knowledge to maximize their use rather than increasing the educator’s workload.

If students understand the variety of educational methods and career paths in academia, we propose that they will be better equipped to make an informed decision based upon their interest and passions. Introducing students early in their educational journey to the wide range of specialties and career pathways available as an educator has the potential to recruit individuals who would otherwise focus on preconceived career directions. From our experiences, early mentoring of students by educators representing a wide array of disciplines allows students to gravitate toward their interests and to understand the knowledge, skills, requirements, and rewards of a career in education. Structured teaching programs have been demonstrated to provide veterinary students the opportunity to develop learning skills and exposure to educational careers.7 Training programs that incorporate well-being, offer collegial environments based on a culture of respect, and initiate opportunities for trainees to explore career opportunities improves the recruitment of future specialists who pursue educational careers.8 Medical students who participate in educational evaluation methods have been shown to provide important perspectives as learners and obtain skills, professional behaviors, and self-awareness of the benefits of becoming educators.9

Partnerships Required to Enhance the Veterinary Medical Educator Workforce

We propose that organized national and international efforts are needed to expose students to the vast range of careers available for veterinary educators, the recruitment of educators from other professions, and efforts to increase the availability of resources that support veterinary educators. These efforts would be most successful if undertaken collaboratively by multiple academic institutions and specialty colleges. Examples of this approach include the Veterinary Scholars Program developed to expose students to careers in research.10 This program began as a limited consortium of veterinary colleges and has expanded into a robust international program with corporate and government engagement that supports first and second year veterinary medical students seeking research experiences through short-term laboratory studies, seminars, workshops, and discussion groups. Similarly, collaboration and experiences with other health professions during the training of veterinary students has received increased attention, in part, due to enhanced critical thinking skills needed for veterinarians to contribute to the increasing role veterinarians play in animal, human, and environmental health.11

Given the need for a multifaceted approach to address the educator shortage, it is our opinion that collaboration among key stakeholders is crucial. Such stakeholders include the AVMA and organizations with educational missions (eg, AAVMC, Academy of Veterinary Educators,12 the American Association of Veterinary Clinicians,13 the Consortium of Workplace Based Education and Learning, etc).14 AVMA-recognized veterinary specialty organizations can also strengthen initiatives directed at expanding the veterinary specialist educator workforce. The AVMA Veterinary Specialty Organizations Committee,15 which represents all the current AVMA-recognized veterinary specialty organizations, is ideally positioned to help gather data and assist in efforts across specialty colleges. In human medicine, the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education requires residents to participate in the education of students, other residents, and other health care professionals.16 Many medical institutions that train residents have developed dedicated “resident-as-teacher” programs, and consensus guidelines have been developed to provide a road map for such programs.17 We feel that identifying and sharing ongoing and planned efforts by different veterinary organizations through open dialogue is essential to avoid duplication and will be critical for effective advocacy efforts at the state and federal government level.

Inter-institutional efforts among veterinary colleges and schools have been formed to support and provide knowledge and skills training for veterinary educators. Regional consortiums have proven to be successful at building educator communities across dispersed institutions who share common educational goals.18,19 These regional teaching academies have enhanced exchange of pedagogy, developed models of peer-evaluation of teaching, and encouraged individual faculty members committed to improving their educational delivery methods.18,19 While internal collaborative efforts within our profession are essential, strategic collaboration with external experts in related fields (eg, human medicine, biomedical engineering, nursing, education) may offer fresh perspectives.20 Many of these professions have developed successful strategies to overcome workforce crises in the past. The value of inter-professional education is being increasingly recognized, and it is our collective opinion that improved education of the next generation of veterinarians will require specific expertise from educators from business, law, veterinary technology/nursing, social work, and data science professions, among others. Concerted efforts are required to identify and recruit educators from these fields. In our view, it will be important to evaluate the effectiveness of systems that allow students to experience the role of educators by being recruited and trained as teaching assistants. We feel that further studies of the use of innovative technology, such as online delivery and virtual reality, are needed to understand the role of technology in attracting or deterring students to educational careers. In addition, it is our opinion, that further understanding of the use of recent technology, such as virtual scribes, need to be evaluated on their effectiveness in the clinic environment to improve efficiency and increase time available for teaching.

In our experience we understand that credentialed veterinary technicians/technologists/nurses in clinical teaching environments can be further leveraged and may provide these team members with a greater sense of purpose in their role and a path to career advancement. It is our opinion that species specific groups (eg, American Association of Equine Practitioners, American Association of Bovine Practitioners, and American Animal Hospital Association, etc) may be useful partners in helping to provide resources and outreach to members. State veterinary medical associations are often involved in their local or regional colleges/universities and may supplement the programs of partnering educational institutions. Other potential partnerships to enhance educator training and career development include government agencies (eg, CDC, NIH, FDA, etc), animal health foundations (Morris Animal Foundation,21 EveryCat Health,22 American Kennel Club-Canine Health Foundation,23 Grayson Jockey Club Research Foundation,24 etc) and private industry groups. Such groups could provide funding, educational opportunities, and inter-professional networking opportunities. The USDA offers early exposure to careers in agriculture (eg, AgDiscovery program), which often feature the role of veterinarians.25 Other partnering institutions could include for-profit organizations that offer continuing education for veterinarians (eg, Viticus,26 NAVC,27 etc).

Finally, we feel that advocacy efforts at the state and federal level are critical. An AAVMC-led effort is currently underway to advocate for federal support for expansion of the veterinary medical educator workforce. The AAVMC works closely with government officials who serve their member institutions to monitor, review, and respond to federal legislation or regulations that affect veterinary medical education.28 These efforts combined with those of other partnering groups are vital to federal decision-makers and the public about the critical role of veterinary medical education in meeting societal needs.

Conclusions and Actions

In our opinion, the impending crisis of a shortage of veterinary medical educators requires a sustained and comprehensive understanding of the factors that are contributing and will exacerbate the problem. Partnerships of leading veterinary professional organizations are required to collaboratively put forth efforts to identify specific issues that deter veterinarians to seek careers in education and ways to counteract these deterrents. Through joint advocacy, exploring new models of educational delivery, promoting education as a career path for students, and programmatic changes that facilitate recruitment and retention of veterinary specialists and professional educators, the veterinary profession can meet these challenges and enhance our ability to educate the next generation of veterinarians and serve society. We feel that failure to act promptly will further exacerbate the current specialist shortage and reduce the veterinary educators available to train the next generation of veterinarians.

Acknowledgments

The authors thank the other members of the AVMA Veterinary Specialty Organization Committee for insightful discussions on this topic.

Disclosures

The authors have nothing to disclose. No AI-assisted technologies were used in the generation of this manuscript.

Funding

The authors have nothing to disclose.

References

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