November 13, 2018

What Veterinarians and Veterinary Students Really Want

Survey results reveal some surprising information that can help practices achieve greater success in their recruiting efforts.
By Maureen McKinney
In a well-attended general session at the 2018 Atlantic Coast Veterinary Conference®, Amanda Landis-Hanna, DVM, senior manager of veterinary outreach for PetSmart Charities, shared some surprising survey data about what veterinary students and veterinarians working in both private practice and shelter medicine are looking for in their career.


WHY THIS SURVEY?
PetSmart Charities, which is separate from PetSmart, Inc, is a mission-driven nonprofit organization that supports animal welfare by finding lifelong, loving homes for pets through programs and thought leadership that bring people and pets together. PetSmart Charities supports veterinary medicine with the end goal of increasing access to veterinary care and enhancing the human–animal bond. To date, the organization has helped more than 8 million pets find homes, granted over $365 million to charitable organizations across North America, and funded more than 2 million spay and neuter surgeries. In addition, PetSmart Charities does much to support veterinary students and animal welfare organizations (AWOs) by strategically granting mobile training units at veterinary schools, subsidizing spay/neuter training, and granting funding for community veterinary care. (AWOs include shelters, fosters, rescues, humane groups, and municipal organizations.)

Dr. Landis-Hanna works with veterinary schools throughout the United States and Canada to determine how PetSmart Charities can best fulfill its charitable mission by building relationships with veterinarians, veterinary students, and veterinary team members, who are integral in understanding and enhancing the human–animal bond. The information she presented is relevant for both AWOs and general practices.

Dr. Landis-Hanna noted that according to data shared at the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVM A) Convention by the Women’s Veterinary Leadership Development Initiative, about 1 in 4 veterinarians indicated a poor satisfaction rate with the profession. She pointed to a number of possible reasons for this, including the burgeoning mental health crisis, overwhelming student debt load, and changes in practice. “The industry has been changing very rapidly in recent years and will continue to change,” she said.

Dr. Landis-Hanna went on to provide qualitative and quantitative data from a survey of veterinary students, veterinarians, and AWO leadership. The PetSmart Charities– funded survey stemmed from a desire to better understand how the opinions and desires of veterinary students may have shifted over the past 10 years. The nonpaid, third-party survey was completed between December 2017 and January 2018. The majority of respondents, not surprisingly, were women. “Our goals were to gain a better understanding of the career needs and desires of veterinary students, who are the future of veterinary medicine,” Dr. Landis-Hanna said. “We also wanted to understand the recruiting needs of veterinary practices and AWOs and to elucidate the perceptions of general practice veterinarians and students about working in AWOs.”


IT’S NOT ALWAYS ABOUT THE MONEY
One of the more surprising findings from the survey is that participating veterinarians working in AWOs and those in general practices earn roughly the same amount—a mean salary of $121,078 for private practice veterinarians and $119,444 for AWO veterinarians. Dr. Landis-Hanna also reported that the AVMA wage estimator (at avma.org) confirmed that salaries between nonprofit and for-profit hospitals are comparable when standardized for location and experience.

Students
“It turns out that veterinary students don’t want exactly the same things that practicing veterinarians want from their career,” Dr. Landis-Hanna said. Contrary to what hiring practices and AWOs believe, salary was low on the list of priorities for veterinary students. “In fact, it was all the way down at No. 8,” she said.

The No. 1 thing students said they want in their career? Work–life balance. “The majority said they will choose a job with a slightly lower salary if it offers a better work–life balance,” Dr. Landis-Hanna said. New grads also said receiving mentorship and working in a practice that has a good culture are more important than salary.

With the No. 2 item on the wish list of new graduates being a positive team environment within the practice, toxic practices are at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to hiring. “Salary will not keep a young vet in a practice with a negative culture,” Dr. LandisHanna said. “You have to fix the toxicity.” Many methods exist to improve culture, including hiring a veterinary consultant or a social worker to identify and work through issues.

Mentorship was the students’ No. 3 request. “So for those of you who think you’re way too busy to mentor a new associate, you might need to reevaluate what your mentorship program looks like and how to facilitate having adequate time to mentor these new grads.”

Regarding AWOs, 60% of students surveyed said they don’t think shelter work is a financially viable career, yet the salary data disprove the students’ theory. And veterinary students said they do want the opportunity for community service and involvement (22%) after graduation. “They want to feel engaged,” Dr. Landis-Hanna noted.

Private Practitioners and Shelter Veterinarians
The No. 1 priority for respondents working in private practice was also work–life balance, followed by a flexible schedule and salary/bonus (this was the most important consideration for 40% of practitioners). When you’re working to keep the staff members you already have, Dr. Landis-Hanna advised, it may be more important to provide salary and bonus opportunities as opposed to a more flexible schedule or the opportunity for continuing education. About 27% of private practitioners named access to cutting-edge technology as their No. 1 priority.

Shelter veterinarians want many of the same things that private practitioners want, the survey data showed. Their primary concern was having a flexible (or desirable) schedule. This was followed in importance by community involvement (the altruism factor), benefits, and salary and bonus.


MISPERCEPTIONS ABOUT SHELTER WORK
“People believe they will be paid less and that the quality of the care will be lower if they work in a shelter versus a private practice,” Dr. Landis-Hanna said. “But working in an animal shelter has changed dramatically over the past 5 to 10 years. The quality of medicine is not better or worse, but it is different. Your primary diagnostic tools may be your senses: palpation, auscultation, sense of smell, and visual exam. And you may do more surgery.”

Because of this difference, AWOs are working hard to provide competitive salaries and benefits packages. Dr. Landis-Hanna said that she was quite surprised by what the survey results showed.

Salary
Salary and benefits are just as important to shelter veterinarians as they are to private practitioners, Dr. Landis-Hanna said, but the perception persists that shelter veterinarians don’t earn as much as those in private practice. Of the students and private practice veterinarians surveyed, 45% and 50%, respectively, believed that a first-year grad working 40 to 45 hours per week will earn less than $50,000 per year. However, only 5% of shelter directors thought that salary number was accurate (Figure). And only 8% of students believed that a first-year graduate working as a veterinarian will earn $75,000 to $99,999 per year, yet 38% of AWO directors stated that they expect to offer first-year grads salaries in that range.



Quality of Care
Another important misperception about shelter work is that the quality of care is worse than the care provided in private practice. “It’s not that [shelter care] is ‘less than,’” Dr. Landis-Hanna pointed out. “It’s different. Community medicine is not the same as private practice, where the focus is aimed at offering the best possible care regardless of cost, often to middle- and upper-class pet owners.”

She noted that although shelters may not offer the most cutting-edge diagnostic and treatment options, quality care and pain relief are still provided in a community medicine or shelter medicine setting. “Good relationships, client education, and adequate veterinary care are of greater importance. The cost of care needs to be considered in order to have enough resources to care for all the patients, and some of the cost may be paid through nonprofit groups or subsidies,” she said.

“This means that the veterinarian needs to provide good-quality medicine at lower prices, using physical examination and low-tech tools. The veterinary team may also have a higher volume of patients. It is a different business model, but one that serves clients who cannot seek care elsewhere. The veterinarian’s salary may be independent of production in this model.”

CONCLUSIONS
A lot has changed over the past 10 years in veterinary medicine, Dr. LandisHanna concluded. “When recruiting new veterinarians,” she advised, “keep in mind what students are looking for.” Also consider that you may have partners within your local community. For instance, you may be able to provide an altruistic outlet for early graduates through a partnership with a local animal shelter. “What shelter medicine used to be and what it is now are very different. But 1 thing is for sure: We’re all in it for the pets, no matter where you land in the veterinary profession.”

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