John A. Herrmann, a professor of veterinary clinical medicine, a dairy reproduction specialist and public health consultant, directs the dual degree program that combines a veterinary medicine degree with a master's in public health. In an interview with News Bureau Life Sciences Editor Jim Barlow, Herrmann talked about the current state of veterinary medicine.
Even though there are waiting lists of students wanting to enter veterinary medicine, there are reports of a growing shortage of qualified veterinarians. What's the story?
There is not necessarily a shortage but a maldistribution. Since the 1960s the majority of vets have gone into small animal practice in urban and semi-urban areas, where people are spending more money on their pets. The real shortages are in production medicine or large animal care such as livestock, as well as in public health and research.
What is being done to address the situation?
In regard to public health, there are two federal bills in play (Senate bills 506 and 914).
Two years ago while on sabbatical as a national science adviser in the U.S. Senate with Dick Durbin, I worked with the American Public Health Association to develop legislation (S.506) designed to address the shortage of formally trained people in the public health workforce. Veterinarians are on the vanguard at the interface of animal health, human health and public health and need to regain our traditional roles in public health. Think about avian influenza, West Nile, monkeypox, SARS and Lyme disease. These are all veterinary issues. What it requires is collaboration between colleges, but there are maybe a half dozen programs in the country that link colleges of veterinary medicine with schools or colleges of public health. Veterinarians used to be very much involved in public health, from livestock care to food safety, from infectious disease work at the community level to meat inspection at local lockers. But since the shift to small animal practice in the '60s, very few veterinarians are formally involved in public health.
Senate Bill 914 would establish a competitive grant program to expand the workforce of veterinarians in public health and biomedical research. Both bills are in committee. Both could pass this year, but without subsequent funding. That would make a statement but wouldn't allow us to accomplish very much.
How far along is the college's dual degree program?
We now have eight students in the program's second year. We want to have from 15 to 20 students in the program at any one time. Veterinarians fit in at the federal, state and local levels, and the three big areas are in epidemiology, infectious disease and public policy.
What about refilling the gaps in large animal practice?
There's not a lot that can be done legislatively to address the shortage of veterinarians in livestock medicine. The big issues are pay and the lifestyle. Salaries for livestock vets can be rough. You can be making six figures working with small animals in a suburban area. Who in the world wants to be on call 24 hours a day in livestock practice for $60,000? Large animal care can be fairly lucrative and rewarding as long as you get into a group practice so the load is shared. Maybe 10 applicants each year express interest in production-animal medicine. Half of those tend to end up in small animal medicine. For many, especially the growing number of women in the veterinary profession, large animal care has a lot of physical demands and puts stress on the family lifestyle. Also there are fewer and fewer farms involved in poultry and swine. And dairy is headed that way.
There is a crying need for veterinarians in research, but there are mixed messages from the federal granting agencies. The National Institutes of Health and CDC, which provide the most money, have a track record of cutting veterinarians out of the picture with grant dollars. We need more seed money to attract more veterinarians into research.