ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Is there an animal doctor in the house? Well, in our neighborhood, there are plenty this week. The American Veterinary Medical Association is meeting at the Washington Convention Center, which I can see right out my office window. But from what we hear, someday, you may not find a vet in the house because the number of applications to vet schools is not growing, not keeping pace with demand for vets.
Dr. Gregory Hammer is the newly elected president of the AVMA and joins us in the studio. Welcome.
Dr. GREGORY HAMMER (President, American Veterinary Medical Association): Thank you very much for inviting me.
SIEGEL: First, I want you to give us some measure that you know of declining student interest in becoming a vet. Or, what do the numbers tell you that are in any way disconcerting?
Dr. HAMMER: For the last few years, we've had a relatively flat applicant pool. We're getting a population across the country that is raised further and further from the farm, no less and less about farm animals, and are somewhat uncomfortable with applying to veterinary school, even though we have an extreme shortage in food-supply veterinarians.
SIEGEL: I've read articles, which say that the shortage is in large-animal veterinarians and people who are working on the food supply, as opposed to small-animal vets who would be treating mostly pets.
Dr. HAMMER: It is. We've had a change in the demographics in veterinary medicine over the last few years. There's been a much higher percentage of female veterinarian graduates. They are more comfortable, in most cases, with companion animal, dogs, pets, cats, small pocket pets, things like that, And they are less likely to be interested in large animals, particularly the food supply, cows, horses and things like that.
SIEGEL: Now, I've seen the figures, 77 percent female registration and...
Dr. HAMMER: Right. And just this past May, with the graduating classes in May, we became 50 percent female, 50 percent male active veterinarians out there in the United States right now.
SIEGEL: But as of now, for example, are you filling the slots, do you think, in those schools? That is, are all the schools still graduating, whatever it is, it's about 2500 vets a year? And are the applicants who are entering vet school just less competitive than they used to be? Or are places going vacant and jobs not being filled?
Dr. HAMMER: No, they're not going vacant at all. We do - you're correct. We graduate about 2500 a year from the 28 veterinary schools in the United States. It's just that perhaps, we don't have as much competition for those slots as we used to. It was very common in 20, 25 years ago to have a one-to-eleven acceptance; 11 people would apply and one would get in.
SIEGEL: It was that competitive to get into vet school. Well, a problem that also results in the shortage of large-animal vets is that they're just fewer people, I gather, coming out of rural areas and becoming vets.
Dr. HAMMER: It is really an acute shortage. We've recently done a mapping study to show where food animals are and where the food animal veterinarians are. And there was one particular area in Kansas that have 25,000 food animals to treat and there were no veterinarians at all within quite a few miles.
SIEGEL: What does the job pay to be a vet in such an area, do you think?
Dr. HAMMER: I would say you're probably talking in the sixty to a hundred thousand dollar range depending on whether it was a multi-person practice or on their own. But I think that's a pretty accurate figure.
SIEGEL: But why do you think young people aren't attracted to that kind of work?
Dr. HAMMER: I think one of the reasons are we've been our worst own advocate. We say too many hours, too large a debt, too low a salary. They go to school for eight years. They come out with a hundred thousand dollar debt. The average starting salary is a little over 50,000. A hundred thousand dollar mortgage is a pretty tough one to start with.
SIEGEL: So what are you going to do to try to turn this around as the new president of the American Veterinary Medical Association?
Dr. HAMMER: Well, one of the things that we're trying to do is improve the infrastructures in the veterinary schools by supporting a bill in the national Congress called the Public Health Workforce Veterinary Expansion Act, and that's Senate Bill 746. And by getting that passed, we're hoping to improve the infrastructures that haven't changed in over 30 years in most of the vet schools, and attract students to those - for public health, food safety, bio-terrorism and so forth.
SIEGEL: There is a bill proposed in - at least proposed, I don't know if it was passed - in Wisconsin, you've told me in Kansas, as well, where if a veterinary student went into large-animal veterinary medicine, there would be a significant forgiveness of student loans.
Dr. HAMMER: I'm more familiar with the Kansas bill than I am the Wisconsin one. It was one of the first that was passed. And what they have proposed and passed is a reduction in tuition by as much as half if that student will agree to, when they graduate from veterinary school, agree to go to a rural area and work in food supply and medicine. And I think it's going to definitely encourage students to go into that part of veterinary medicine we are having such an acute shortage in.
SIEGEL: Well, Dr. Hammer, thank you very much for talking with us.
Dr. HAMMER: Thank you very much.
SIEGEL: That's Gregory Hammer, who is the newly elected president of the American Veterinary Medical Association.
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