It's been slightly more than two years since we began experiencing shortages of groceries, toilet paper and other essentials. A shortage of a different kind has been building since long before the pandemic, and it's reaching a critical level – the shortage of veterinarians. Jelena Peterson, hospital administrator at Laketown Animal Hospital, said, "The shortage of veterinarians is a true shortage; there are more positions open than there are veterinarians to fill them."
It is both a national and local problem and the issue is multifaceted: large numbers of veterinary clinic owners are retiring, schools of veterinary medicine are graduating fewer students and there is an increase in demand for veterinary care.
The American Animal Hospital Association published an article in March of this year that states approximately 2,000 baby-boomer veterinarians retire each year, and the number of new graduates entering the field is about 2,600, which is only an annual increase of 2.7%. Nationally, Mars Veterinary Health, the world's largest provider of veterinary care and employer of veterinary professionals, conducted a study that estimates nearly 75 million pets in the U.S. will go without health care because of a need for nearly 41,000 additional veterinarians by 2030. These are national figures, but the shortage is felt here in the Springfield area as well.
Dr. Larry Firkins, professor and associate dean for public engagement at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine confirmed that there is a lack of supply to meet demand when it comes to the need for veterinarians in both urban and rural areas of Illinois. He explained that the College of Veterinary Medicine has the capacity to admit 130 students and has requested approval to increase that number to 150 students. This process does not take place overnight, but it will help ease the shortage in the long run.
Some veterinarians say that since people were home due to the pandemic that the pet's status has been elevated to that of a family member, and people are viewing their pet's medical care in a similar way that they view their own health care.
Firkins agreed, "There is an increased demand for veterinary care of a comparable level to that which people expect for themselves." He added, "Millenials are expecting a higher level of veterinary care than the boomer generation, and they don't seem to mind paying for it. The demand is there for veterinary services."
Dr. Melinda Kilty, owner of Five Star Veterinary Center, agreed there has been a rise in demand for veterinary services, especially since people have spent more time at home. "We had more time to pay attention to our pets and notice clinical signs of them needing care," she said.
Kilty initially came to Springfield to work as an emergency clinic veterinarian, and in April she opened Five Star Veterinary Center, 700 Corporate Court, along with Dr. Erika Eigenbrod, in response to the number of people not being able to have their pets seen by their regular veterinarian.
Kilty said, "We take the overflow. If a veterinarian cannot see their patient (right away), then they can refer to us, and it's working very well because all clinics are referring to us. We are giving those clinics relief." As an indicator of the need for a daytime urgent care, Kilty and Eigenbrod set a goal of what they could manage in a day, and since opening less than two months ago they are getting close the halfway mark of that goal.
Why aren't more veterinary school graduates coming here to practice, since Springfield has the demand for small and large animal care?
Peterson said, "It's difficult to hire a new veterinary graduate in Springfield. New graduates want salary, a good location and work/life balance." She said although Laketown Animal Hospital pays well, provides good benefits and sells the benefits of living in Springfield, it often comes down to geography, or a salary plus a significant signing bonus that only very large conglomerates can offer. New veterinarians are typically carrying heavy student loan debt and finances are often a big factor in their decision-making.
Firkins also said it often comes down to geography when recruiting new graduates. Many students are from the Chicago suburbs and want to return to the suburbs, and out-of-state students typically return to their home state.
"The challenge is, we have students from Illinois who graduate from the University of Illinois and move to other states that have mountains and the ocean. There are some out-of-state students who fall in love with Chicago, but graduates typically return to where they came from," he said.
Holly Whisler is a freelance writer from Springfield who experienced the veterinary shortage firsthand when trying to get care for her dog.