Veterinarians are in high demand across the country, and clinics in Juneau are feeling the pinch as the COVID-19 pandemic made an already existing problem worse.
“It’s made it hard to try to keep up with the demand,” said Dr. Gerald Nance, a part-owner and veterinarian at Southeast Alaska Animal Medical Center. “Clients are getting mad, employees are getting burnt out. We try to triage as best we can but inadvertently things are getting neglected like maintenance care. We don’t have the staffing to deal with everything.”
The clinic has made multiple posts to social media that ask the public to be patient and attempt to explain the situation. One of the biggest issues for veterinarians in Juneau is after-hours care, according to Nance. The doctors in town try and share the responsibility for on-call, after-hours emergency services, Nance said.
Not a new shortage
The Associated Press reported on a nationwide shortage of veterinarians as far back as 2018, and Nance and other doctors said the pandemic made that situation worse.
There are multiple factors contributing to the shortage. According to an Aug. 25, article from the Journal of American Veterinary Medical Association, the demand for vet services has gone up while productivity has dropped and burnout is causing high staff turnover.
According to JAVMA, data shows that reports of a significant increase in pet adoptions during the pandemic causing the backup may be overstated. The number of pets adopted from shelters in 2020 was the lowest in five years, based on data from over 4,000 shelters across the country, JAVMA said, with nearly 450,000 fewer animals adopted in 2020 than in 2019.
Still, demand for vet services increased during the pandemic — which several doctors attributed to people being at home with their pets more —and a decrease in productivity due to health mitigation rules and turnover.
The problems are worse in rural places such as Juneau, where lack of skilled workers and staff turnover have long plagued many industries.
“Here in Juneau, it has always been tough to keep people here,” said Melissa Roulette, a veterinarian technician who’s worked at SAAMC for seven years. “We’ve had doctors go for a multitude of factors; isolation, cost of living, they’re directly out of school with a lot of debt.”
For pet owners, it’s been hard to get appointments for routine check-ups or standard paperwork, according to George Utermohle, who runs the Grateful Dogs of Juneau, a non-profit group supporting dog owners.
“There’s a shortage in the number of vets available,” Uternohle said in a phone interview with the Empire. “Few vets are still here and they can’t devote as much time to you as they would like to.”
The shortage has made it hard to get things like vaccinations or medical certificates allowing animals to travel by plane, Utermohle said, and pet-owners in Juneau struggle to find after-hours care.
“Those vets are just not there,” Utermohle said. “I’ve heard bad stories about people trying to get their dog to a vet after hours and they can’t do it.”
The lack of vet care is extremely stressful for people, Roulette said, at a time when a lot of people are already feeling anxious. People are very protective of their pets, Roulette said, and she and other animal care professionals recognize pet care can be very emotional for people. Pet owners often demand immediate responses to issues with their pets that might not be that critical, Roulette said, but some customers are not taking no for an answer.
Aside from the increased demand, the model of veterinary care is changing too. Large corporate-owned clinics are able to spend far more money than any small clinic to recruit students right out of vet school, Roulette said. Other industry professionals cited the rise of corporate clinics as impacting smaller vet clinics, particularly in rural areas.
According to a 2018 article from the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, corporate consolidation has been going on for over a decade. In 2007, Mars Petcare, a subsidiary of candy-maker Mars, Inc., bought Banfield Pet Hospital, which had more than 900 branches in the United States. Mars then also bought animal care businesses BluePearl and Pet Partners and in 2017 bought VCA with more than 780 animal hospitals in the U.S. and Canada, according to Cornell’s CVM.
Those businesses can offer signing bonuses of $70-90,000, Roulette said, in addition to higher salary and other benefits for jobs in the Lower 48. Small clinics are unable to match the pay of corporate clinics, but they also say the demands of younger veterinarians for a better work-life balance are increasing.
A case of entitlement?
But even as younger vets are asking for more, animal care professionals in Juneau said there had been a decline in the quality of students graduating from vet schools.
“Admitting students to vet school used to be very competitive,” Nance said. “Now, it seems like you only need some deep pockets. The quality of students coming out is not what it once was.”
Nance said he believed in good quality of life, but younger recruits were expecting too much, too soon. Younger vets have tried to set their own schedules and are wary of on-call emergency work, which Nance said was common for clinics in Juneau. Long work schedules, combined with Juneau’s remoteness and weather, have always been challenges, Nance said, but recruiting has become increasingly difficult.
Dr. Sam Smith at Tongass Veterinary Service placed the blame directly on America’s education system.
“Their perception of reality is skewed because they’ve been brainwashed at universities,” Smith said in an interview with the Empire. “Kids have been coddled at the universities. Nobody wants to work hard anymore, they’re more concerned about their work-life balance when they’re new on the job.”
Smith said the vet shortage was exaggerated on social media. There were indeed fewer doctors in town, Smith said, but veterinary care is still available. The larger issue, according to Smith, was the lack of skilled and committed workers being produced.
Nance too said vet schools were increasing their emphasis on work-life balance, which he said was teaching students they don’t need to work hard. Many of the vets coming to Juneau were doing short-term relief work which pays better, but is more difficult for clinics, Nance said. When clinics can’t find contracted workers they turn to short-term hires, but those workers are more expensive and don’t stay for very long.
“It’s not that I disagree with quality of life, but they just don’t want to work,” Nance said. “It’s advantageous to not sign a contract, a lot of them are doing relief work and then they don’t have any ties or liability with that clinic.”
Roulette said many students were saddled with debt from student loans, and many of them were not planning on permanently relocating to Alaska. But she too said in her 27 years in the animal care profession she’d seen the quality of doctors decline and growth in demands and complaints about routine tasks from younger workers.
“I would have to say I have seen, every time you give an inch, they take a mile,” Roulette said.
According to Roulette, many young vets were able to secure higher pay from corporate clinics or else take advantage of smaller clinics needing relief work. Nance said his clinic has had to raise its prices in order to compensate for the increased costs.
This was not true of all younger vets, Nance said, and said his clinic has gotten some very hard-working recent graduates. Nance said he sympathized with the long work schedules and difficulty of relocating to Alaska, but said younger vets just seemed unwilling.
“Nobody’s coming here, there’s a nationwide shortage, Juneau’s going to be the very tail end of all this,” Nance said. “We’re left with a selection of people who are only in it for the money.”
Nance too, was critical of the current education system.
“That’s what they’re teaching these people in schools, that it’s advantageous not to sign a contract,” Nance said. “That’s the kind of mentality that they’re fostering, poor work ethic and entitled.”
Smith said the majority of recent veterinary school graduates were women, who were more likely, he said, to leave the workforce after marriage and pregnancy.
“It’s essentially a bunch of part-timers and liberal-minded university students,” he said. “We’re ruining our culture. We’re seeing the results of leftist academia, this is the result.”
Cost of living
According to Cornell’s CVM, defenders of corporate consolidation, including Pet Partners COO Dr. Nick Nelson, cited factors like failure to keep up with wage inflation, which is a daunting prospect for veterinary students emerging from school carrying high levels of debt. Nelson also told Cornell wages for para-professionals like licensed and associate technicians were staying stagnant at best and were unlivable at worst.
The Pew Research Center released a report in 2018 showing real average wages in the U.S. had about the same purchasing power they did 40 years ago, and what wage gains there have been have mostly flowed to the highest-paid tier of workers.
Whatever the reasons behind the shortage, it’s impacting animal care workers across the nation. Corporate pay often comes with high demand for productivity, according to JAVMA, and burnout among workers is only getting worse.
In Juneau, Roulette said clients have increasingly become unruly, and often berate staff with profanities over the phone or in person. The clinic used to experience that kind of behavior once or twice a month, Roulette said, now it seems like a daily occurrence.
“With everything else going on in the world everyone walks out the door with an 8 (out of 10) in terms of anxiety,” Roulette said. “I get it, but it’s not productive.”
As to what’s to be done, JAVMA suggests avoiding knee-jerk reactions and said it’s researching the future of the veterinary labor market. Lingering concerns from COVID-19 continue to influence decisions to return to work, JAVMA said, putting pressure on the labor supply but it’s not known how long that will last.
However, both JAVMA and Cornell’s CVM note the importance of mental health and work-life balance.
“Becoming more efficient or reducing turnover won’t be achieved simply by adding more people to the profession,” JAVMA said. “Better work-life balance and improved mental health require a critical assessment of team engagement, work culture, and practice leadership.”