No light at the end of the tunnel for rural vet shortage

The number of vet school grads willing to work in a rural practice barely keeps up with retirements

“We have to step it up. We have to find ways of making more veterinarians of our own.” – Dr. Pat Burrage.
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Veterinarian Pat Burrage tried to retire back in 2018. But so far, he hasn’t had much luck.

There just aren’t enough new vets out there to take up the mantle.

“The veterinary shortage is the reason a geriatric like me has a job,” he said with a laugh. “Currently in Alberta, we’re producing graduate veterinarians at the same pace we’re retiring veterinarians.

“There’s not much light at the end of the tunnel as far as new hiring goes.”

The vet shortage in rural Alberta isn’t new, nor simply a rural issue — it’s a global problem that seems to be growing worse and worse every year, said the recently elected president of the Alberta Veterinary Medical Association.

“We have zero growth in the profession, and that’s significant,” said Burrage, who’s seen that first hand over the course of his 32-year career, mostly spent in small rural practices.

But it’s not for lack of demand.

“All our new graduates who step out of the University of Calgary with a doctor of veterinary medicine degree could have a job tomorrow — every individual could be hired,” said Burrage, who now consults for cow-calf and feedlot clients through the Lethbridge Animal Clinic, where he mentors industry newcomers.

It’s not for lack of interest, either.

Robert McCorkell. photo: Supplied

“We have a very strong demand from young people in Alberta to take veterinary training — we have oversubscribed by five to one of qualifying applicants,” said Robert McCorkell, interim dean of the University of Calgary faculty of veterinary medicine.

“There are a couple hundred people a year that we have to turn away from the program because we don’t have any room to accommodate them.”

The real issue is program space — and there’s no easy fix for that.

In 2008, the U of Calgary vet school opened with a class size of 30 students, in addition to 20 provincially funded seats at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Saskatchewan. But in 2017, the province decided not to renew the 54-year-old agreement that allowed Alberta students to study in Saskatoon. Instead, that funding was shifted to the University of Calgary program, increasing its class size to 50.

So the net number of seats available for Alberta students hasn’t changed — the only difference is where they’re taking the training.

“We’re very pleased to have a larger class size, but it still hasn’t met the demand that is out there for graduates,” said McCorkell. “This problem is not improving, and there are concerns this is going to worsen.”

Rural is a hard sell

Rural Alberta could continue to bear the brunt of the shortage. Right now, only 20 to 30 per cent of the U of Calgary vet graduates end up working in rural locations.

“It seems our rural colleagues have the most difficulty recruiting,” said McCorkell. “We know the lack of veterinarians in rural spaces is not new. This is an issue that’s been around for years and years.”

For McCorkell, the solution seems quite simple — graduate more veterinarians every year.

“A lot of people who seek veterinary training come from those rural communities, and we have pretty good evidence that people like to go back to where they came from,” he said. “If we could train those people, it’s likely they would take those jobs.”

But Burrage isn’t convinced it’s simply a matter of more graduates. They also have to want to live in rural Alberta.

“When I graduated, 20 per cent of the population originated from rural Alberta. That’s not the case now — the percentage is much smaller,” said Burrage.

“So the students going into veterinary medicine are that much more distanced from rural agriculture. They’re not thinking about it because it’s not home. Home is an urban centre.”

That was the challenge for Melanie Wowk when she first started her rural practice near St. Paul.

“The reason I’m here is because I married somebody from here,” said the retired large-animal veterinarian. “We have to address the fact that over 85 per cent of the veterinary school population is female. How do we get more women into these communities? And how do we keep them there?”

When she was a large-animal vet, Melanie Wowk accepted that working January until May without a day off and being on call 24-7 went with the territory. But young vets have told her “there’s absolutely no way” they would do that. photo: Supplied

She closed her practice in 2014 after 20 years, and even then, she was noticing a shortage.

“Back then, I was getting calls from as far away as Fort Saskatchewan, which is over two hours from me. It’s just not doable in practice,” said Wowk, who now runs a cow-calf operation with her family near Beauvallon.

“Lately, I’ve been getting more calls from producers who are in areas not close to veterinarian centres, typically people who are farther north where they might have to travel two or three hours to get to a veterinarian.”

‘On call 24-7’

That’s not unique to veterinarians, though, she added.

“We’re seeing it everywhere — with doctors, with dentists, with just about everything. These small towns just aren’t what they used to be,” she said. “I don’t know if making these veterinary schools bigger and graduating more people are going to bring more people to rural communities.

“I do often wonder if this trend is going to turn around.”

Part of the challenge is the workload that comes with a small rural practice.

“Being on call in a rural practice is definitely something you have to do,” said Wowk. “A cow that’s in trouble that needs help calving can’t wait six hours for somebody to come.”

For new graduates, that lifestyle just isn’t appealing.

“I’ve been told by young veterinarians that there’s absolutely no way they would ever practice in the way that I did — working January until May not taking a day off, being on call 24-7,” said Wowk.

“It’s not an easy way of making a living, that’s for sure. It takes away time from your family and friends, especially during busy times of the year. It’s not easy.”

And it’s becoming a vicious cycle.

“If we don’t get more people out there, those long hours are going to continue to be a problem, and if those long hours continue to be a problem, people won’t want to go there,” said McCorkell. “If they can’t attract help to keep their practice going, that practice may close, and if that practice closes, the people in the community have to find other ways of accomplishing their requirements.

“If they need veterinary care, they’ll have to go farther afield, and that’s what’s happening now.”

Ultimately, it’s the animals that suffer.

“The quality of care for those animals may go down if we don’t have veterinarians readily available to attend and be involved with intensive agriculture,” he said.

That’s already starting to happen, Wowk added.

“It’s getting to a point now where it’s critical,” she said. “We’re starting to see animal welfare issues because people can’t get a hold of a veterinarian.”

Closing the gap

Although there’s no quick fix, Burrage is hoping to use his term as president of the Alberta Veterinary Medical Association to tackle this issue.

“This is something we’re going to have to strategize over how we’re going to resolve this for the longer term,” he said.

“I’m very passionate about encouraging kids to stay in agriculture and encouraging kids to get involved in veterinary medicine and to pursue careers in agriculture in Alberta.”

The first step is looking for more ways to utilize animal health technologists in rural practices.

“We’re looking at opportunities to improve the use of our technologists in a clinic structure to take the pressure off the veterinarians,” said Burrage. “In some cases, we could be using them in different ways that they’re not currently being used so that the veterinarians aren’t worn out.”

The sector is also looking to internationally trained veterinarians to fill some of the gaps — although there’s a global vet shortage, too. And once they get here, they may not be able to pass the qualifying exams.

“There’s still a huge barrier,” said Wowk. “It’s very difficult for foreign veterinarians to pass our board examinations, which is what all of us have to pass to get our licences. But maybe we could increase their ability by allowing them a limited licence.”

But one way or another, more vets will be needed to fill the vacancies in rural Alberta, and ideally, those positions would be filled by the swath of prospective students interested in practising veterinary medicine in the province.

Increasing the number of spots at the U of Calgary is also a priority for Burrage.

“Obviously it’s a tough time to approach government for some extra cash,” he said. “But that will be the goal — to have those conversations with government.

“The time is right, and now we have to step it up. We have to find ways of making more veterinarians of our own.”

About the author

Reporter

Jennifer Blair

Jennifer Blair is a Red Deer-based reporter with a post-secondary education in professional writing and nearly 10 years of experience in corporate communications, policy development, and journalism. She's spent half of her career telling stories about an industry she loves for an audience she admires--the farmers who work every day to build a better agriculture industry in Alberta.

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