Animal clinics in Michigan are overflowing with cats, dogs, and other creatures. Veterinarians, on the other hand, are in short supply.
Relief veterinarian Kurt Fennema examines a dog named Bijou at Holton Road Veterinary Clinic in Muskegon on Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2022. (Cory Morse | MLive.com)
On a gloomy Tuesday morning, Millie, a brown and white puppy with lovely eyes, quivered but dutifully sat through her routine check-up. Dr. Kurt Fennema, a veterinarian, worked rapidly, examining her health, delivering injections, and discussing meds with her owner.
Millie waltzed back out the door of Northside Veterinary Hospital in Muskegon in less than 30 minutes.
Fennema took a few moments to examine a yellow calendar of appointments for the day.
Everyone is understaffed, he explained.
A nationwide scarcity of veterinarians is causing Michigan animal facilities to buckle. Doctors are getting harder to come by as the profession deals with excessive stress, burnout, turnover, and debilitating student debt, all of which have been compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Certainly, we're hurting in the same way that other parts of the country are hurting. Dr. Erin Howard, president of the Michigan Veterinary Medical Association, stated, We're all in the same boat.
For the past three years, the Northside Veterinary Hospital has been unable in finding another veterinarian to staff its two facilities.
Alisha Lopez, a Northside veterinarian technician for nearly six years, said, It's frustrating for a lot of reasons.Because we want to be able to help these folks, says the narrator. We don't want to have to say no to anyone.
After the clinic went from five full-time doctors to two, Fennema, a relief veterinarian from Ann Arbor, was brought in to fill some of the gaps. He admits that seeing an inbox full of inquiries from animal hospitals desperate for aid might be overwhelming.
Peter Barnes is continually looking for doctors to staff the 24/7 emergency care clinic at Veterinary Care Specialists in Milford, a village 40 miles northwest of Detroit.
This has been going on for a long time, he explained. It's been a problem for a long time, and it doesn't appear to be getting any better.
Last year, there were 18 available veterinarian posts for every one job seeker, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA). According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, veterinarian employment is predicted to expand 17 percent over the next decade, as people retire or leave the sector, resulting in 4,400 unfilled positions each year.
According to Howard, Michigan is also feeling the pressure, although the extent of the problem is unclear.
She flipped through The Michigan Veterinarian quarterly magazine and continued, Six, seven, eight, nine—there are 10 pages of classified advertising seeking for veterinarians.The number of hospitals looking for veterinarians has dramatically increased.
When veterinarians see pet owners struggle to pay for care or make difficult decisions about not treating their animals because they can't afford it, morale issues arise.
That takes a toll on your mental health on a daily basis, Howard added.
According to Howard, veterinarians can encounter physical, mental, or verbal harassment from the public, with internet reviews and comments magnifying attacks. For her colleagues who are pressed for time and have large patient loads, it can be a thankless job, Lopez adds.
They're overworked, underpaid, and they pour their hearts and souls into this profession for very little pay, she remarked.
Student debt continues to 'rise and rise and rise.
In addition to on-the-job pressures, veterinarians are burdened by enormous school debt, with 88 percent citing debt as a major source of stress.
The cost of veterinary education has steadily increased, Howard explained. And, sadly, as the expense of schooling has risen over time, salaries have not kept pace.
Veterinary students graduate with an average debt of $157,000, which is 334 percent greater than the national average of $37,000. When compared to other medical professionals, veterinarians' debt is nearly double their annual income, whereas physicians' debt-to-income ratios range from 89 to 95 percent.
High levels of stress are a major concern in the sector.
Howard claims that "drastic challenges" have forced veterinarian mental health into the forefront due to long hours, late nights, unexpected schedules, and the emotional burden of caring for animals.
In a recent poll conducted by Merck Animal Health and the American Veterinary Medical Association, over 92 percent of veterinarians cited rising stress as a top mental health problem. Merck stated in 2020 that veterinarians are 2.7 times more likely than the general population to commit suicide.
We have to deal with a lot of sick animals, and individuals have to pay for it out of pocket. So it simply adds to their stress, as well as my doctors' stress, because it makes it more difficult for them to do the job they want to do for the patients, Barnes explained.
That puts a lot of pressure and stress on that person to figure out how to deal with this. Howard remarked.
The federal government decided to grant $25,000 in student loan relief to individuals working in disadvantaged areas due to the debt crisis and a dearth of rural vets. Senator Debbie Stabenow, D-Michigan, sponsored legislation last year to repeal taxes on the program.
During a pandemic, problems become acutely worse.
The COVID-19 outbreak, which halted in-person appointments and resulted in a surge in pet-related services, exacerbated these underlying problems.
Our client base has increased in leaps and bounds, Lopez added. We've had to stop accepting new clients simply because we don't have enough bodies to see all of the pets that need to be seen.
Last year, Michigan animal hospitals were overwhelmed with appointments, resulting in a 2.5 percent rise in visits. According to the AVMA, revenue climbed 10.6% in Michigan as pet owners demanded more services and expenses soared.
There are many reasons why we have these stressors, Howard explained, but they've been made acutely worse by the stress of having to deal with such a large influx of people.And we don't have any extra time to deal with them.
Fennema became a relief doctor late last year after becoming exhausted from working overnights as an emergency veterinarian. The pandemic, he adds, affected everybody's job life,particularly for vets, who now had to rely on phone calls to deliver bad news to pet owners.
People would come in with significant concerns, and we never met them until we were euthanizing their pet, he explained. You have to tell them over the phone that you either need to do a surgery or this is a life-threatening situation.
According to the AVMA, the pandemic exacerbated professional burnout, with 44 percent of veterinarians considering leaving the business last year, up 6% from 2020.
This vicious circle exacerbates the problem, Howard explained.
We have to keep our spirits up.
The veterinary world is adapting to deal with these complex difficulties.
Barnes, who has been overseeing animal clinics for four decades, believes that the most significant developments have occurred in the last few years. Last year, his independently held practice, Veterinary Care Specialists, collaborated with an equity partnership to begin offering new grads tuition reduction and continuing education possibilities.
Getting qualified people and competing was quite difficult, Barnes said. Now that we've joined this group, we've got a lot more help.
More clinics are touting student loan aid in recent job advertisements in Michigan, ranging from full payback to Northside Veterinary Hospital giving $50,000 total over five years. Flexible schedules, mentorship, signing incentives, and on-staff social workers are among the other benefits.
It's a huge task,Howard said, but we have to be positive that we'll be able to cure these problems or make them better than they are now.
The field's focus has shifted to workplace culture, work-life balance, and recruitment incentives.