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Winter 2012 Vol. 12 Number 2

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Veterinarians Protect Humans Too

©Monkey Business/Thinkstock W hen it's time to take Fido to the doctor, pet owners in cities have many options -- more than half of the 93,000 veterinarians in the U.S. serve companion animals like cats and dogs, and the majority of veterinary students seek training in pet medicine. It may come as a surprise, therefore, that a recent National Research Council report finds that other areas of veterinary medicine are failing to attract new candidates, leaving important areas of public health underserved.

Companion animal medicine has been a great success story for pets and their owners, but that success has come at the cost of veterinary fields that serve both animals and humans, such as infectious disease, food safety, and laboratory animal care. Veterinary schools have increasingly limited ability to hire faculty in all areas of veterinary medicine and to support graduate training required for some research positions.

The fields experiencing difficulty are vital to public health and human drug development. The report says without immediate action the academic veterinary community will fail to prepare the next generation of veterinarians for jobs in state diagnostic laboratories, federal research and regulatory agencies, and the pharmaceutical and biologics industry.

As fewer veterinarians become food-animal or mixed practitioners, the "critical mass" of expertise serving rural areas is being lost, placing both the food supply and companion animals at risk. If a serious animal-health crisis involving a highly contagious food-animal disease were to happen today, the veterinary profession would not be adequately equipped to meet such a challenge.

Another factor keeping students from pursuing veterinary careers in these industries is simple economics. Veterinary education is the most expensive of all the health sciences, around $66,000 per year. Students graduating from veterinary school in 2009 carried an average of nearly $130,000 in debt. Although most prospective students are drawn to veterinary medicine because of a love for animals, not a love of money, the disparity in potential income relative to debt is increasingly untenable.

Addressing these challenges depends on the cooperation and collaboration of professional veterinary organizations, academia, industry, and government to raise student awareness of all veterinary fields. The high cost of veterinary education should be confronted, the report says, with new or unconventional ideas like developing a consortium with shared curriculum. Students could also receive specialized training via novel partnerships. Overall, the report says a national investment to support veterinary capacity is needed, with federal support for education and greater investment in veterinary research. -- Lorin Hancock

Workforce Needs in Veterinary Medicine. Committee to Assess the Current and Future Workforce Needs in Veterinary Medicine; Board on Agriculture and Natural Resources, Division on Earth and Life Studies, and Board on Higher Education and Workforce, Division on Policy and Global Affairs (2012, approx. 320 pp.; ISBN 0-309-25744-1; available from National Academies Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $59.00 plus $5.00 shipping for single copies).

Alan M. Kelly, professor of pathology and pathobiology (emeritus), School of Veterinary Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, chaired the committee. The study was funded by the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges, American Animal Hospital Association, Bayer Animal Health, and the Burroughs Welcome Fund.

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Copyright 2012 by the National Academy of Sciences