Spiraling veterinary student debt and the lack of a sustainable and profitable business model for many private practices in the modern business environment threaten the future growth and stability of the veterinary profession.

As part of a national effort to address this problem, student members of the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine at Virginia Tech’s Veterinary Business Management Association chapter recently presented “Building a Healthy Financial Future for the Veterinary Profession” in the college center.

The average educational debt for new veterinarians is estimated at more than $100,000 and can be as much as $165,000 to $220,000 if the student attends a state-run institution as a non-resident. Beginning salaries for new practitioners average $60,000.

The rising educational debt to salary ratio is considered one of the most serious issues facing the long term stability and growth of the veterinary profession and a number of studies and programs have been devised to examine the problem and consider solutions, according to Dr. Grant Turnwald, associate dean for academic affairs.

Euphemistically entitled “Laying our Hands on the Elephant” because of the tendency for organizations and institutions to recognize yet ignore the “elephant in the room” – or major obstacle or challenge, the event brought together doctor of veterinary medicine students, faculty members, veterinary practitioners and others in a productive open forum, problem-solving format known as “World Café.”

The meeting was facilitated by Dr. Carol Mase, a biologist, veterinarian, educator, and coach-consultant who has practiced veterinary medicine, conducted research fellowships in cellular communication, and patented the first anabolic treatment for human osteoporosis. Following 10 years working as a pharmaceutical executive in global marketing, strategic planning and organizational change, Mase formed Cairn Consulting and now specializes in organizational consulting and executive coaching.

Mase also facilitated a major meeting on this topic that was held in January 2008, in conjunction with the North American Veterinary Conference in Orlando. Organized by the National Veterinary Business Management Association, the meeting featured about 250 leaders in veterinary academia, industry, and lending organizations and about 100 student leaders from the association.

Some of the salient concepts that emerged from that meeting were that many in the profession remain unaware of the magnitude of the problem; recent graduates lack core competencies in communication, leadership and other areas which may be affecting their performance and confidence; recent graduates are not familiar with components of profitability and business aspects of practice management; and veterinary teaching hospitals need to remain focused on producing well-rounded veterinarians prepared for primary care in private practice.

World Café is a group problem-solving technique that encourages participants to move from group to group in an open format that encourages the creation and cross-pollination of ideas. The process is noted for evoking solutions that represent the collective intelligence of a group.

The Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine is believed to be only the second of the nation’s colleges of veterinary medicine to convene a “summit” on what is being termed the “Debt/Profitability Elephant” by organizations in the profession that are actively working on the problem, according to Heather Groch, president of the college’s chapter of the association.

The college’s “Elephant in the Room” event focused on several key areas, according to Groch. These included increasing the perceived value of the veterinary profession, both internally and externally; how new graduates can make veterinary practices more profitable; increasing student competence in the non-technical skill areas required for success in the profession; and the implications and rationale for post-graduate doctor of veterinary medicine internships.

National meetings on the topic were held at the annual meeting of the American Animal Hospital Association in Tampa, Fla., on March 27 through March 30 and are also scheduled for the American Veterinary Medical Association’s annual convention in New Orleans, La., to be held July 19 through July 22.

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