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Increasing enrolment not a cure-all for vet shortage

Local vets respond to provincial funding announcement
Funding additional seats won't cure vet shortage in rural Alberta. File photo

ST. PAUL - Provincial government funding to double the number of seats for veterinary students at the University of Calgary may be a step in the right direction towards addressing the shortage of veterinarians but it’s doubtful it will make much difference for rural practices in Alberta.

In speaking to Lakeland Today following the announcement of $8.4 million over the next three years for enrolment expansion, two local veterinarians believe the government is out of tune with the real challenges facing rural veterinary practices.

Dr. Craig Hellquist of St. Paul Vet Clinic said the shortage of vets is not something new particularly in rural practices. He’s been in the profession for more than 30 years in rural practice and even before he graduated, he said there was talk around the need for more vets in rural areas. He believes the shortage has now also migrated into urban practices.

“So, everybody feels there’s this crunch,” he said.

While he believes there is a good representation of rural students and those that want to go into rural practice in the first year of veterinary school, by the time graduation rolls around the number of grads still interested in practicing in rural areas has dramatically decreased. Often, they may do a short stint in a rural practice before leaving for urban opportunities.

“We don’t have problem in attracting people in a rural practice, we just have a problem in retaining them . . . I’ve been in rural practice long enough, I can tell you what the detractions are.”

Being a rural veterinarian is demanding. Hellquist said long hours and being on call combined with the physical aspect of dealing with large animals can be “stressful and a strain on the system.” He believes addressing these challenges on the front lines may make a difference in attracting vets to rural areas.

Bonnyville veterinarian Dr. Greg Benoit believes part of the problem lives within academia itself and the messaging veterinary students receive during their training.

“I think it’s two-fold,” Benoit said of the problem. “I think it’s the admission process. We’re just getting the wrong people in the pipeline, and I think they are being trained by people who don’t understand rural. None of those academia people have lived this. They are training them to work in my job here? They have no idea what my job entails.”

Benoit, who operates the Bonnyville Vet Clinic and Centre Animal Hospital in Cold Lake, admits to being somewhat apathetic when it comes to the approach being taken to address vet shortages.

“If we just look at data they have woefully failed. They have failed to listen to rural veterinarians. It is run by academia who have their own way of doing things. I think the thought process is that if we just have enough vets eventually the city will get saturated, and we’ll get spillover.”

Benoit’s father was in veterinary practice for 50 years, and his brother is also a vet. While he said it has been a family passion, he admits he’s not eager to recommend the profession to his children to carry on the legacy, at least not now with things being the way they are.

“I’m at the point I don’t think I’d recommend it for my kid. I’ll support the heck out of them if they want to do it. Honestly, if they asked me now my answer from five years ago would be different that it is today.”

Hellquist said one option that could possibly provide some relief is for corporate buy-in to rural practices. He said it’s happening in urban areas where the small animal practices tend to be more lucrative and are easier to staff, but he suggests it may also help address the rural challenges.

“What I suggest they do is strategically buy four, five or six rural practices through Alberta, turn them into a centre where they provide the after-hours, the emergency calls, they can work together with colleges and supply students because a lot of these colleges are lacking caseload,” he said. He sees it as a win-win opportunity where students get the experience they need while taking some of the after-hours’ workload off local vets.

“We’re increasing the seats in the colleges but maybe we’re not addressing the root of the problem as to why these kids are not staying in practice,” he said.

When the veterinary medicine program at the U of C was first opened in 2012, Hellquist recalls the government of the time was touting it as being the way to solve all the problems in rural practice. In his view, that didn’t happen and last week’s announcement which also alluded to more seats being the answer to rural shortages hasn’t convinced him they are addressing the core of the issue.

Last week, the Province also announced $59 million in capital funding over three years to support the construction of new infrastructure for the veterinary program at the U of C.

“Veterinarians and veterinary technologists are pillars, not only of the agriculture industry, but also in the rural communities they serve. Veterinary medicine is a key sector in our rural economy, and more Alberta-trained vets is a big win for our livestock sector,” Nate Horner, Minister of Agriculture Forestry and Rural Economic Development, stated during last week’s announcement.

Additionally, Lakeland College in Vermilion was on the receiving end of $990,000 in funding to support their animal health technology program among others.

While increasing enrolment numbers in vet school may look good on paper the proof of its benefit to rural Alberta remains to be seen.

“In my opinion, the only way that’s going to work is if you pump out enough people and they saturate the urban market and the kids are forced to go out in rural practice because that’s the only jobs, then eventually that will happen. But if you don’t address the real problem, it’s still going to be difficult to attract and retain people in rural practice,” Hellquist said.

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