Pet Parents: How to Support Your Veterinary Team

Overview

The Problem

A common assumption about the day-to-day experience of veterinary professionals is that they play with animals all day. While this assumption has elements of truth, it’s not the full picture of what happens on a daily basis behind closed doors. Veterinary teams are challenged with routine care of small and large animals to challenging cases, terminal diagnoses, and euthanasias. From working with pets to production animals, veterinary professionals often experience a rollercoaster of emotions. Unsurprisingly, there are many challenges facing the veterinary community causing a workforce shortage from individuals leaving the field due to burnout or financial reasons, retirement, and sadly death by suicide.

In fact, 1 in 6 veterinarians considers suicide at some point in their career. Veterinary professionals are at increased risk for death by suicide compared to the general public: 

  • Male veterinarians: 1.6x 
  • Female veterinarians 2.4x 
  • Male technicians: 5x 
  • Female technicians: 2.3x  

What Does NOMV Do?

NOMV helps veterinary professionals through peer-to-peer support, financial support grants, education presentations, and by collaborating with partner agencies to extend services to the veterinary community. When we say veterinary professionals we mean everyone – veterinarians, veterinary technicians, veterinary students, and veterinary support staff. 

Challenges

Many veterinary professionals frequently experience a phenomena known as “moral distress”. This occurs when someone is prevented from doing something that they know is right, and leads to increased stress levels. This can happen for a variety of reasons, including if a client is unable to afford the cost of treatment, or, if a client wishes to continue treatment despite a poor quality of life for the animal in question. A study found veterinarians experience this type of moral distress several times per week and continues to impact them throughout their career – regardless of the number of years they have been practicing medicine. On a scale of 0 (not at all stressful) to 10 (most stressful), the median rating for moral distress by veterinary professionals was a 9. That means that several times each week, veterinary professionals are experiencing some of the most stressful circumstances that they can imagine.

Student Debt

Veterinary professionals often struggle financially, living paycheck to paycheck. Despite completing the same number of years of medical training, the pay for veterinarians is lower and the cost of the degree is equivalent to their human medicine counterparts – approximately $200K. Additionally, human medicine relies on insurance to pay for services and veterinary medicine requires the same equipment and procedures to diagnose, but insurance is not factored into the cost of treatment nearly as much. More than 20% of veterinarians and over 50% of support staff report poor financial compensation as the largest stressor in their lives.

Cost of Treatments

Just like any profession, there are overhead expenses associated with operating a veterinary practice. The cost of medications, supplies, and equipment can be astounding. Hiring and training staff that is knowledgeable and compassionate also comes at a cost. Veterinary professionals go into this field because they love animals, and most volunteer their time and knowledge one way or another. However, even if staff worked for free there would still be the material expenses necessary for treatment. In fact, more than half of veterinary practices in one study would have difficulty paying off their business expenses.

Cyberbullying

In the internet age, client interactions no longer end when the veterinary professionals go home. Most hospitals and practices maintain online presences to spread the word about the great work they do. Unfortunately, this can be co-opted by people that send, post, or share negative, harmful, false, or mean content about someone else. Business cyberbullying includes: using direct comments to or about individuals, naming individuals, or using their photos online in ways designed to harm their professional or personal wellbeing. Cyberbullying has real and detrimental effects on the wellbeing of those targeted, and at least one in five veterinary professionals has reported being one of them.

Cost of Care

As mentioned above, the cost of care is driven by the cost of medicine, not the individual clinics. Low-cost clinics are often non-profits and receive grant subsidies to help offset their operating costs. Alternatively, private practice clinics have to pay for all their own medicine and equipment.

Appointment Availability

Advances in veterinary medicine are allowing animals to live longer than ever before. But as animals age, they are more likely to develop complicated health histories that require lots of time and attention. Sometimes these patients might need more time than a typical appointment allows. As they do their best to respect the time of all their patients and clients, many veterinary professionals will make up for this time by working 7 days a week, not taking lunch, skipping bathroom breaks, and otherwise not taking breaks. 

Often when talking about veterinary teams, people imagine local private practices that treat pet dogs and cats. However, all animals need medical care and some vets choose to study and treat other species like horses, cattle, and other large animals that need much more space to thrive. Unfortunately, the economic environment for veterinary graduates described above encourages them to seek employment in areas with more affluent clients. This creates an excessive demand for veterinary professionals that service rural areas and large animals. They must travel further to provide treatment–it’s easier to bring the doctor to the cow than the cow to the doctor, after all–which also serves to reduce the number of patients that can be seen. 

The US Department of Labor projects that the demand for veterinarians and related staff will grow 17% by 2030. This is more than twice the rate of most professions, and nearly 42% more than human medical practitioners. At the same time, veterinary educational debt is growing 4.5% faster than income. Combined with other stressors on veterinary professionals detailed on this webpage are leading to remarkable rates of staff turnover. Frequent staff turnover often leads to too few staff on site for a given day, increasing the stress on the individuals. As anyone with experience working in an environment with too few people knows, this creates a vicious cycle of too much work for the people on site leading them to quit, making it incredibly difficult to maintain a stable staff.

Triage

In any situation where there is a greater demand than resources available, triage processes are used to efficiently determine when, where, and what to address first. In medicine, this means determining which patients are seen before others based on the severity of the situation. Veterinary teams, especially in emergency and urgent care settings, need to triage every case to maximize each patient’s outcome. Longer wait times are not because the veterinary teams care for some animals more than others, but because some animals need more care. In the case of ambulatory veterinarians, distance and area of coverage also plays a role, especially when clients are unable to trailer horses, cows, and other large animals to the veterinary hospital. 

Off-hours Consultation

Licenses and mental wellness are at risk when pet owners ask “quick questions” of their friend, family member, neighbor, or other acquaintance that works in veterinary medicine. Many veterinary professionals report a poor work-life balance, and asking them to work on their time off–even answering a question that seems simple to a pet parent– can contribute to that.

REALITY
In the internet age, client interactions no longer end when the veterinary professionals go home. Most hospitals and practices maintain online presences to spread the word about the great work they do. Unfortunately, this can be co-opted by people that send, post, or share negative, harmful, false, or mean content about someone else. Cyberbullying includes business cyberbullying, including direct comments to or about individuals, naming individuals, or using their photos online in ways designed to harm their professional or personal wellbeing. Cyberbullying has real and detrimental effects on the wellbeing of those targeted, and at least one in five veterinary professionals has reported being one of them.
REALITY
Veterinarians often struggle financially, living paycheck to paycheck. Despite completing the same number of years of medical training, the pay for veterinarians is lower and the cost of the degree is equivalent to their human medicine counterparts - approximately $200K. Additionally, human medicine relies on insurance to pay for services and veterinary medicine requires the same equipment and procedures to diagnose, but insurance is not factored into the cost of treatment nearly as much. More than 20% of veterinarians and over 50% of support staff report poor financial compensation as the largest stressor in their lives.
REALITY
Licenses and mental wellness are at risk when pet owners ask “quick questions” of their friend, family member, neighbor, etc. When vet professionals are not working, please refrain from asking work related questions and instead bring your pet to the local ER vet if there’s an emergency.
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Solutions

  • Every September, NOMV hosts our annual NOMV Race Around the World. We would love for all pet parents to form a team and share your involvement in the race with your friends and family to raise awareness and funds.
  • Be considerate of your vet team any time you bring your pet for a visit – if they’re behind schedule it could be due to a life threatening emergency or the previous pet not being able to go home with their family ever again.
  • Volunteer your skills to further the mission of NOMV — become a NOMV Advocate!
  • Donate to NOMV.
  • Share this page and NOMV social media posts with your followers to raise awareness of the challenges veterinary medicine teams encounter.
  • Ask your veterinary team if they know about NOMV and if they don’t let them know we have peer support, financial support, and education opportunities to help anyone in the profession in need of support.
  • Trust your veterinary team! They are there to help you, and they have you and your pet’s best interest at heart. 
  • Write positive reviews on your vets social media/webpages to combat cyberbullying.
  • Offer a verbal “thank you” to everyone you encounter at the vet clinic. The entire vet team, from the receptionist to the veterinarian is working hard to help your pet.
  • If you appreciate what a team member has done, send a thank you note and specify how they helped and what it meant to you.
  • Make appointments as far ahead of time as possible. Veterinary clinics are exceptionally busy right now and it can be hard to get appointments with your preferred provider or for more urgent issues. Planning ahead can save you stress, and reduce stress on clinic staff trying to accommodate your pet’s needs.
  • Refill prescriptions via the clinic’s preferred method, and as far ahead of time as possible. Filling prescriptions requires a veterinarian’s approval and takes time away from urgent tasks. Request them ahead of time so staff can fill them during down time and have them ready for you.
  • Be clear about why you are bringing your pet into the clinic when you make an appointment, and include all issues you intend to talk with the veterinarian about. Extra time may be required for animals with multiple issues and the receptionist can book accordingly if you are clear about what your concerns are.
  • Ask how your veterinary team is doing and allow them space to respond honestly. Simply asking “How are you doing today?” can change someone’s day and if they need support you have the opportunity to educate them about NOMV and potentially save a life.
  • Consider getting pet insurance. Veterinary expenses can be high and often unexpected. Veterinary insurance can provide a way to be able to provide the vet care your pet needs, while also reducing the stress on veterinary staff who want to be able to help your pet but are constrained by financial realities.

References

American Veterinary Medical Association. (n.d.). Student debt advocacy. https://www.avma.org/advocacy/national-advocacy/student-debt

American Veterinary Medical Association. (2015, September 2). Cyberbullying in veterinary medicine. JAVMA News. https://www.avma.org/javma-news/2015-09-15/cyberbullying-veterinary-medicine

Batchelor, C. E. M., & McKeegan, D. E. F. (2012). Survey of the frequency and perceived stressfulness of ethical dilemmas encountered in UK veterinary practice. Veterinary Record 170(1), 19. https://doi.org/10.1136/vr.100262 

Bartlett, S. (2021, January 1). Veterinary educational debt continues to rise. Kansas City Veterinary Medical Association. http://www.kcvma.com/2021/01/01/veterinary-educational-debt-continues-to-rise/

Bureau of Labor Statistics. (n.d.). Occupational outlook handbook, veterinarians. U.S. Department of Labor. https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/veterinarians.htm

Connaster, G. (2021, June 2). Veterinarian grads struggle to pay off student loans in rural areas. Wisconsin State Farmer. https://www.wisfarmer.com/story/news/2021/05/19/veterinarian-grads-struggle-pay-off-student-loans-rural-areas/7053271002/

Dodge, L. E., Koontz, S. R., & Hadrich, J. C. (2019) Factors associated with financial performance of independently owned companion and mixed animal veterinary practices. Journal of American Veterinary Medical Association 255(7), 805-811. https://doi.org/10.2460/javma.255.7.805 

Moses, L., Malowney M. J., & Wesley Boyd J. (2018). Ethical conflict and moral distress in veterinary practice: A survey of North American veterinarians. Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine. 32(6), 2115–2122. https://doi.org/10.1111/jvim.15315 

National Association of Veterinary Technicians in America. (2016). National Association of Veterinary Technicians in America Demographic survey results: 2016. https://cdn.ymaws.com/www.navta.net/resource/resmgr/docs/2016_demographic_results.pdf

Nett, R. J., Witte, T. K., Holzbauer, S. M., Elchos, B. L., Campagnolo, E. R., Musgrave, K. J., Carter, K. K., Kurkjian, K. M., Vanicek, C. F. O’Leary, D. R., Pride, K. R., & Funk, R. H. (2015). Risk factors for suicide, attitudes toward mental illness, and practice-related stressors among US veterinarians. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 247(8), 945-955. https://doi.org/10.2460/javma.247.8.945 

O’Hara, K., McConnell, C., Leung, A., & Spadafori, G. (2019). Nationwide-Purdue veterinary price index: 2019 update. NationwideDVM. https://nationwidedvm.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/FINAL_Nationwide-Purdue_2019-Veterinary-Price-Index.pdf 

Vande Griek, O. H., Clark, M. A., Witte, T. K., Nett, R. J., Moeller, A. N., & Stabler, M. E. (2018). Development of a taxonomy of practice-related stressors experienced by veterinarians in the United States. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 252(2), 227-233. https://doi.org/10.2460/javma.252.2.227 

Witte, T. K., Spitzer, E. G., Edwards, N., Fowler, K. A., & Nett, R. J. (2019). Suicides and deaths of undetermined intent among veterinary professionals from 2003 through 2014. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 255(5) 595-608. https://doi.org/10.2460/javma.255.5.595