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Why Australian vets are abandoning the profession

As Australia struggles to keep its prized veterinary graduates in the profession, Pet Insurance Australia takes a look at the declining numbers and the possible reasons why.

“For any pet owner, the important role their veterinarian plays in the lives and wellbeing of their beloved four-legged friend is huge,” Nadia Crighton from Pet Insurance Australia says. “Particularly during emergencies or life-changing disease and injury, your humble vet can mean the difference between life and death.”

However, research shows that many veterinary clinics in Australia are struggling to fill positions for this vital profession. 

“Veterinary graduates successfully entering, and staying in the field, has been declining for several years and many clinics are noticing this as they try and fill positions in their practices,” Crighton says.

Second Chance Animal Rescue Veterinary Nurse Anna uses a stethoscope to check a dog's heart. (Photo: supplied)

The Lincoln Institute survey [1] found nearly 90 per cent of veterinary business owners and managers reported unprecedented difficulty filling vacancies over the past two-to-three years.

Dr. Mark Lawrie, Chief Executive Officer of the University Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Sydney agrees.

“There has been no decline in the number of students wishing to pursue a career in veterinary science, the major attrition is the loss of recently graduated vets from the profession.”

This decline is due to many factors, with the main being the emotional, financial, and fear of failure by graduated students.

Photo: University Veterinary Teaching Hospital (Facebook)
“We have these amazing high-academic achievers [2], with many of them minimally experiencing failure during their life thus far and the school and university teaching process.” Dr. Lawrie says.

In the real world, pets die, pet owners euthanise due to the cost of treatments and things go wrong like infections or cardiac arrest. Dealing with a biological entity like a dog or cat, the outcome of any surgery or diagnosis is not a guaranteed success.

“This can lead to a feeling of failure,” Dr. Lawrie adds. “These new graduates are then facing people wanting to euthanise a pet that can be saved, or asking to fix a pet for free, or dealing with something going wrong out of the scope of the pet's diagnosis.”

It is no surprise to many in the industry this type of pressure and disappointment ultimately leads to depression.

“Sadly, it is a well-known fact that veterinarians have a significantly higher risk of suicide,” Nadia Crighton from Pet Insurance Australia says. “Research shows that veterinarians are four times more likely to fall victim to suicide than the general population and twice as likely as other healthcare professionals.”

When speaking to many veterinarians it’s clear that being a vet can be a challenging experience. Long hours and highly emotional work can take its toll. There’s also the expense. Many vets have large overheads to cover high-end equipment and costs associated with running a clinic. With veterinary science also being highly skilled and an essential career, encouraging more graduates to stick with the profession is more important than ever.

“There is also a huge misconception with some pet owners about the cost of veterinary care and treatments,” Crighton says. “With the industry not being subsidised, the cost of this equipment and specialist requirements falls squarely on the vet and the pet owner. More often than not, your local vet is a “specialist” in a number of different fields and offers top-end treatments and diagnostics. There is also the constant upgrade to keep updated with the booming technology. This all comes at a cost.”

“It is a broad and diverse profession - you are a surgeon, a clinician, a radiologist and radiographer, a clinical pathologist, and a nutritionist, a physiotherapist, an oncologist, grief and loss counsellor and often times a manager too,” Dr. Lawrie says.

Unfortunately, when pet owners cannot afford the costs of treatment, this can lead to uncomfortable situations for both the pet owner and the vet.

“As a pet owner myself, I have never contemplated the sheer relief a vet feels when you mention you have pet insurance, until after a recent emergency with my dog,” Crighton says. “Watching your vet turn from explaining all the possible costs to a look of relief can be a huge eye-opener to how important pet insurance can mean to the treatment plan for your pet, and the stress levels of your vet.”

Having pet insurance does take a lot of pressure off,” Dr. Lawrie concludes.

So, what do vets say about the impact pet insurance has on their everyday experiences?

It lets us know we can provide gold standard care, and do what’s in the best interest of the fur baby in front of us”.

- Dr. Liam Donaldson, Veterinary Emergency and Critical Care Specialist, Queensland Veterinary Specialists.

“I love it when owners have insurance. The paperwork/claim process has gotten easier, and I now understand what the insurers are looking for, so can complete the clinical details correctly most times. Pet insurance certainly gives vets AND pet owners peace of mind.

- Dr. Kim Kendall, Feline Veterinarian & Applied Cat Behaviourist, The Chatswood Cat Palace, Sydney.

"Makes me feel much more comfortable that I can give the gold standard treatment for the pet without having that difficult 'chat about money' "

- Dr. Lewis Kirkham from Two Vets Talk Pets Podcast.

[1] Source: Australian Associated Press (2019)
[2] Lead image: University Veterinary Teaching Hospital Sydney - final year doctorate of veterinary medicine students examine Greyhound Sam.

MEDIA RELEASE, 11th August 2020

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