On Tuesday night, I attended the quarterly Corridor Conversations of the Kansas City Animal Health Corridor, where we welcomed back a former Kansas Citian who was influential in the animal health industry — John Payne, President and CEO of the Banfield Pet Hospital group of small animal veterinary hospitals. Banfield currently has nearly 800 small animal veterinary hospitals in the U.S. and is growing by 50 veterinary hospitals per year.

Payne’s topic was veterinary education and he brought numerous statistics with him about small animal medicine that can also apply directly to food animal medicine and some of the trends we are seeing there.

Trends in veterinary medicine:

Gender and international students
Payne says that from 2006-2011 enrollment in veterinary schools has increased 10.3%. “There are 11,000 students in our 28 U.S. veterinary schools and we graduate about 2,700 students per year,” he says. However, the applicant pool has decreased from 3.29:1 in 1980 to 2.1:1 in 2010.

The gender shift has been an eye opener in veterinary students as well since 77-78% of veterinary school classes are female vs. 22% of males. Payne says this is not just a U.S., but a worldwide trend.

One of the questions was are there too many veterinarians, and are we getting too many from foreign veterinary schools? Payne says the U.S. attracts about 500 veterinary graduates from international schools (even though many of those graduates are Americans). However, he does not see this influx as a major problem. “For instance, the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) has free tuition, but graduates have to practice community service before practicing medicine, and they are not coming to the U.S. The argument that we have an influx of foreign graduates is not happening.”

Debt load crosses all species
A 2010 AVMA study showed that the average debt load of veterinary students was over $133,000, and that over 89.9% of veterinary students had debt. Thirty-six percent had debt over $150,000, and more than 15% had debt over $200,000. Adding to that debt was the fact that the study found that nearly one-half of the students were not confident in their skill level so they are pursuing internships to gain experience, which then added to their debt. “When a starting salary for a small animal practitioner is $67,000, they are not interested in buying a practice,” says Payne. “They can’t buy a house or a car first.”

Communication in practice
Even though Payne was talking about cats and dogs, his underlying point about client communication crosses the pet-food-animal client boundaries as far as veterinarians go. He says a Bayer/Brakke study showed that 63% of dog and 68% of cat owners question the need for regular veterinary care. “There is no good dialog taking place. That’s a failure in practice.”

The study showed that older pets see a veterinarian less than younger animals, and that 1/3 of the cats don’t see a veterinarian in a year. In the study, the cost of care was higher than clients expected and specialty care is expensive. Payne has seen the veterinary business decline in the last 10 years with practices charging more but seeing fewer patients. “Owners do not see what routine care is,” he says. “The model of veterinary practices is ‘cure sick patients’.”

Another problem, he says, is the trend of going toward three-year vaccinations, which leads clients to believe that pets don’t need to see veterinarians on a regular basis. Payne says Banfield worked to circumvent this by offering twice a year comprehensive physical exams without charging an office visit. “It makes a difference to educate consumers.”

A profession under attack
The profession is under attack, Payne says. “Everyone wants a piece of the animal health business.” TV commercials advocate “skipping a trip” to the veterinarian and buying for less online. There is mass merchandising entering the pet pharmacy business.

A new threat, he mentions, is Wal-Mart wanting to introduce a bill into federal legislation that every time a veterinarian writes a prescription they have to tell the client that they can get them filled somewhere else for less.

Another bad trend is not having a veterinary-client-patient-relationship in small animal practices. Because of this, Payne says, inaccurate internet information often drives client interaction or lack of interaction with their veterinarians. 

Communication lags for vets
It’s no surprise that many veterinary students go into veterinary medicine because of an affinity for animals but perhaps not as much for the communication they can have with their human clients. And perhaps the lack of good client education and communication can be directly tied to a lack of good communication education in veterinary school. Payne says in contrast, in medical school the second criteria for graduating is communication skills, which is not a requirement for veterinary graduates.

“New veterinary school graduates need a coach or mentor because they don’t know what to do,” Payne says.

So what is the lesson for the food-animal veterinary industry? Pretty much the same as the small-animal industry. Veterinary students need some internships and guidance. Animal owners (small or large) need to understand that value of preventive care as well as sick-animal care, but that takes communication from veterinarians for them to realize its importance, and learning how to effectively communicate to clients needs to come from veterinary school curriculums.