Why Aren’t There Enough Vets In Australia?

Updated April 13, 2021

You may have heard the sad news that one of the vets in Berri is closing. This comes hot on the heels of YP vets announcing the same thing: the closure of their Port Pirie clinic.

In both cases, a lack of vets has been cited as the main reason. So in the interests of the care for your pets, it’s worth taking a closer look at what’s happening to the vet supply in Australia. Afterwards, I’ll offer some advice for new graduates and recently employed vets.

Reasons For The Vet Shortage

Australia has seven veterinary schools, including one right here in South Australia. When the three newest ones opened, we were warned it would lead to an oversupply of vets. So why hasn’t that happened?

It seems like vets are leaving the profession much faster and earlier than they should be. The reasons why aren’t well understood. I’ve got some ideas, but let’s start with what is published on the subject.

Here is the only recent study I can find that lists the reasons why young vets leave their job.

Reasons for leaving or planning to leave for 98 recently graduated veterinarians in New Zealand

Reason (respondents answered more than one)Number (%)
Lack of support or mentoring40 (41%)
Toxic practice culture and/or colleagues40 (41%)
Income or compensation too low33 (34%)
Routine workload too high32 (33%)
Lack of career development options28 (29%)
After-hours workload too high27 (28%)
Conflict regarding clinical standards and/or protocols19 (19%)
Unhappy living in practice location16 (16%)
Loss of confidence in skills16 (16%)
Low self-perceived competence14 (14%)
Relocated due to family and/or spouse14 (14%)
Completion of a fixed-term contract (e.g. internship or maternity leave cover) 12 (12%)
Wanted to change disciplines11 (11%)
Ethical challenges regarding financial constraints limiting treatment options 8 (8%)
Personal medical and/or mental health issues5 (5%)
Difficulty interacting with clients3 (3%)
Ethical challenges regarding performing euthanasia for economic reasons 2 (2%)
Parental leave and/or family care obligations2 (2%)

At first glance, this seems surprising. The biggest reasons stated are common to any profession: inadequate support, workplace conflict, remuneration and workload.

However, we shouldn’t be surprised. Vets are just like anyone else, and what matters most is being happy, valued and supported at work. Is this what we are doing wrong? I think it is.

I’ll expand on each on these reasons.

Inadequate Support

It’s notable that the two vets that are closing are both small practices where only one vet generally works at a time. Clinics like these are certainly less popular with vets, because there’s no-one to offer support for things like:

  • professional advice
  • cover when things get busy
  • sick leave
  • even just conversation

These benefits are especially important for young vets. But for them, support isn’t just having other vets around. It’s the other vets also being willing to offer their time to help. Even in bigger practices I’ve seen young vets left to fend for themselves.

Those who have come to Walkerville for a while will know it’s grown it from sole-vet to a five-vet practice. The reasons have always been about adequate cover, support, and yes, being able to get vets to apply when a job vacancy appears. I always saw our small size as a threat to our existence.

Workplace Conflict

It’s very hard to know whether conflict is worse in vet clinics, but I suspect it is. I’ve had my share of toxic cultures where everyone is so busy trying to protect themselves that the team ethos disappears into hostility. It’s really a management issue.

Our job has conflicting pressures from many sources: clients, patient needs, employers, but the one that often gets overlooked is our own internal pressure. Most of the conflict I’ve seen is when vets want to do what they feel is right, but feel unable to do so.

We should always remember that vets (much more than doctors) are employees, and are often expected to toe the practice line. This can be very hard if you’re asked to do something you don’t believe in.

Read more here about the new pressures on vets from owners.

Workload

Conflict is also very often related to the feeling of being short on time or overworked. Overwork is horrible, because it increases stress and fatigue. The double whammy is knowing you’re not doing as good a job as you could if you had more time.

I always say to student vets and recent graduates: new vets are actually very popular with a client, because what they lack in experience they more than make up for with care and enthusiasm. However, in order to shine they need to be given enough time.

Young vets are extremely vulnerable to overwork because they take longer to get to the same result, and because they lack the coping strategies. Like standing up for themselves and saying “I’ve got too much on”, “please don’t double book me” or “I’m not comfortable doing this procedure without training.”

Not overworking vets does mean sometimes turning clients away at busy times. This is very hard to do, and very hard to justify on the phone. You can understand why some practices will keep saying yes and increasing the pressure.

Remuneration

Vet wages lag well behind other professions, and nowhere more so that with new graduates. To some extent this simply reflects their greater need for support early on. However, wages should then rise quickly as skills develop.

It’s still an unusual vet that comes to me asking for a pay rise. I hope I do the right thing, but I could be so easily be overlooking pay rises. And I’m in a thriving, busy practice. There are probably plenty that simply cannot afford to pay their vets what they deserve.

In the end of the day, the amount any vet can be paid depends partly on the fees we charge you. There’s always been a push-pull between vets being adequately remunerated and being affordable to everyone who needs them.

City vs Country

One specific factor in SA matters too. It’s well known to be harder to hire rural vets everywhere, but especially here with our smaller towns. They can lack a full range of lifestyle choices, and are long drives away from each other and Adelaide.

Most vets come from the city so why would they move away from friends and family unless they had to? It’s not as though we’re talking about the country jobs being very different either. Even in country towns, most vets are still only seeing small animals these days.

Country vets also often have to do their own after-hours work (though not the two that are closing it must be said). Please note that both towns still have larger vet clinics.

Yes, COVID Affects This Too

Until Covid, I wasn’t aware of just how many vets Australia has been importing to make up the shortage. Needless to say, that has all stopped, and there’s no doubt it’s contributing to the overall lack we are experiencing. But of course, if we look after our vets properly, we shouldn’t need to import them.

Advice For New Vets & Recent Graduates

I strongly suspect that out vet shortage starts with how we treat vets at the beginning of their careers. I think we aren’t setting them up for success, and allowing too many to slip through the cracks.

God knows I’m not perfect either. In the interests of human well being and the future care of animals everywhere, here are some suggestions for young vets going into their first job:

  1. Choose your first practice carefully. It should have an experienced vet available in the clinic every day. You may be expected to be alone for a few hours, but that’s all until you are confident. This is usually 3 to 6 months.
  2. Even once more experienced, no vet should do sole charge for two years after graduating. Make sure that the staffing when you are hired will be maintained.
  3. Don’t accept your appointments being double booked. Make that a condition of employment if you feel you have to. Clients with routine appointments are always happy to be rescheduled for emergencies.
  4. When it comes to conflicts over clinical standards, use the nuclear option: evidence. If you think you’re right, do a literature search and present the results to your practice owner. They’ll need a very good reason to continue the old way after that.
  5. Get support programs written into your employment contract, like regular meetings to discuss your progress (honestly the corporates have it all over us on this point). Meetings would also be an excellent time to nip conflict in the bud.
  6. Your student peers are a valuable source of support so never fall into the trap of thinking of them as competitors. I find the vet social media forums to be excessively preachy and full of unrealistic perfection, so try to engage with real people face-to-face as much as possible.
  7. Get a mentor from outside your practice. There is an established AVA program not just for members but you can do it yourself as well. Just find a vet you can trust so that you can be completely open with them.
  8. Consider joining the AVA especially in the (cheaper) first two years. They have a free phone counselling service for members. In the absence of any well-established professional unions, this is as good as it gets.
  9. Be open about pay. Talk with your classmates about this and anything else, and then bring it to your employer’s attention if you think there’s a problem. Most of the time, it’s just that they have their mind elsewhere.
  10. The country can actually be a fantastic way to start a career if the practice is right. That’s especially true for ‘joiners’ who get involved with the local sports and community clubs.
  11. Know yourself and your requirements. How resilient are you? Can you work full time without mental or physical exhaustion? How would you cope away from friends and family? Do you have a good support network?
  12. Be prepared to leave if it isn’t right. Don’t feel guilty about ‘leaving them in the lurch’. Your future is at stake here.

I would love to hear more of your suggestions below. Names can be anonymous. Replies to this email will also be treated with the strictest confidence.

Related: Veterinarian Workplace Stress & Suicide

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By Andrew Spanner BVSc(Hons) MVetStud, a vet in Adelaide, Australia. These articles are from a series regularly posted on email and Twitter. Subscribe via email here to never miss a story!

Andrew

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