Animal healthcare has a long list of learnings over the years from what works, and doesn’t work, in human healthcare. If you think about it veterinary medicine has rung up quite a debt to human medicine. And it’s pretty much been a one-way street. It’s hard to think of any facet of pet healthcare that does not reflect some contribution from its human counterpart.

But now pockets of the veterinary profession and industry steadfastly deny that human healthcare has anything to teach us when it comes to the greatest challenge we’ve ever faced: the chronic and acute shortage of veterinary professionals. Human healthcare has tackled massive shortages for three generations, stretching back over 60 years. It hasn’t “solved” the problem of shortages, but it has turned a potential catastrophe into a manageable situation so that every farm, town, suburb, and city in America has some means of access to healthcare. Try and imagine if human medicine had done nothing but hope that its current crop of MD’s could handle it all with help only from early stage RN’s? Yet that’s the official position of many leaders in veterinary medicine. Let’s examine.

What tools has human healthcare deployed to address shortages going back to the 1960’s (a memorable decade for us Baby Boomers)?

  • Schools of Osteopathic Medicine were accredited and have grown to nearly the same number now as veterinary schools. Over time the DO practitioner became accepted alongside an MD in the marketplace and by the healthcare industry and financial powers, with even all-important medical residencies being merged.
  • The Physician Assistant emerged as a wartime necessity to provide critical medical care on battlefields, then morphed into an essential partner and adjunct in hospitals and medical practices. We’ve now enjoyed 3 generations of PA’s in America. My personal medical care at the Mayo Clinic often is provided by PA’s…and I’m not disappointed.
  • Nurse Practitioners evolved into Masters graduates, and now Doctors of Nurse Practitioners, providing essential care throughout the United States in medical deserts lacking any alternatives for caregivers. There’s over 300,000 Nurse Practitioners now, and growing.
  • Telemedicine scrapped its way from an existential threat to doctors to being accepted officially in all 50 states as a vital tool to begin medical care (like a VCPR) and continues as an alternative source where necessary or conveniently appropriate. Threats of the downfall of traditional medical care proved hollow.
  • Academic programs training each of these medical professionals exploded in numbers to a grand total exceeding 850 across the United States, augmented by large accredited programs in the Caribbean. In the 30-year period from 1984 to 2013 the US population doubled, MD/DO programs grew by 45%, while veterinary medicine added one program at Western University in California.

Each of these tools has succeeded and is welcomed by American consumers… and earned recognition as essential. Yet powerful veterinary interest groups aggressively oppose efforts to adopt similar tools. The arguments are anchored in predictions of economic doom and threats of widespread injuries to animals. Let’s examine.

  • Veterinary mid-level practitioners like PA’s and Nurse Practitioners are “welcomed” with fears that these higher-level medical professionals will jeopardize the careers of veterinary technicians/nurses. It hasn’t happened in human medicine, but somehow this precedent is overlooked. The only existing mid-level program is the Masters of Veterinary Clinical Care at Lincoln Memorial University’s College of Veterinary Medicine. It’s an online program limited to credentialed veterinary technicians/nurses with sufficient undergraduate science courses since the MA curriculum includes veterinary anatomy, physiology and pharmacology. Ask yourself one question: why would credentialed veterinary technicians who advance their careers with intensive medical training while remaining in their clinics be expected to undervalue and harm veterinary technicians? Isn’t it more likely that these MA degree holders would be much more likely than veterinarians to appreciate the training and board-certified qualifications of credentialed veterinary technicians/nurses. Who knows better what veterinary technicians/nurses are capable of handling…and shouldn’t this lead to higher compensation all around as veterinarians come to appreciate the value of these professionals? Organized efforts in Colorado by the Colorado VMA and AVMA to lobby against Colorado State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine’s plan to introduce a Veterinary Professional Associate program (VPA) led to denial of even a hearing in the 2023 Colorado Legislature. Why are they so afraid of change or a pilot?
  • We’ve seen the same reaction to adoption of veterinary telemedicine along the lines of human healthcare precedents. Veterinarian jobs will shrink, practices will lose money and, of course, animals will be injured. Yet no complaints of harm to pets have been filed in Ontario, Canada after 6 years of veterinary telemedicine, or the 19 states who waived prohibitions against a telemedicine VCPR during Covid. Ask yourself this question: if a veterinarian is a good practitioner in her clinic why would she turn into a malpractice risk if she exercises her judgment to help a client with virtual tools? This lack of faith in the good judgment of our veterinarians is unwarranted and unfair.
  • We witnessed passionate debates from 2010 to 2014 about an alleged “surplus” of veterinarians, with calls to reduce class sizes and turn down new programs. Look how that turned out. Thank goodness new programs like Lincoln Memorial, Midwestern, Long Island, University of Arizona and Texas Tech were given life by the Council on Education. The naysayers didn’t understand that shrinking our way to the future wouldn’t work. Millennials and Generation Z’s want more pet healthcare, not less. And the same is true for Baby Boomers and Generation X pet owners. Pet owners and human healthcare consumers want more from our healthcare systems, and this demand grows each year. The sky isn’t falling on veterinarians, actually it’s opening up with a “problem” every profession hopes for: greater demand that shows no sign of abating.

The lessons from human healthcare shouldn’t be viewed as the gospel for veterinary medicine in the United States. These lessons should be studied, given a chance to prove themselves as pilots, and then embraced whenever the evidence shows they work and didn’t turn out to be the agents of doom we hear about. It’s not that complicated.