The Struggle Between New and Senior Veterinarians

A couple of weeks ago I was chatting with one of our veterinarians, Dr. Jenna Donaldson, about some of the challenges facing our profession. What started at as a casual discussion turned into a lengthy conversation on the reasons so many new equine veterinarians leave the profession within a few years  after graduation. I challenged Dr. Donaldson to start a discussion on the problem with the goal of starting a conversation between new and senior vets on how we can resolve the problem. I have posted a blog from her on the subject. We are planing on following up with a podcast with her and some of her graduating peers and other vets who have been in the profession for a while. There is a solution out there and we won’t get to it unless we start talking about it collectively.

During veterinary school and my internship years, I had the privilege of meeting many new equine practitioners. Luckily for me, they were always happy to talk to an overly-chatty student, maybe in part because they remembered being in my shoes! By and large, these individuals were intelligent and hard-working. I was amazed at the vast amount of experience and ambition these individuals possessed. They were personable, respectful, and good with horses. I felt certain that the majority of them would surely be successful in equine practice. However, a number of them have chosen to move on to different areas of veterinary medicine within three to give years of graduation. This is becoming increasingly common in this industry and it is unfortunate given the amount of time and money that these individuals dedicate to their education. Many of them could also have gone on to be leaders or successful business owners in the profession. Why is this happening?

The reasons cited by practitioners who have chosen to move on from equine practice are varied and complex. Some graduates started out in a practice where mentorship and/or support was limited. This causes significant tension while climbing the steep learning curve post-internship. Most of us have extremely high expectations for ourselves, and we take failure personally. It is impossible to be perfect all the time, and new veterinarians WILL make mistakes. Having strong backup available can help prevent major errors and provide emotional support for the inevitable issues that arise. When this is lacking, the stress that develops can be overwhelming. For individuals in this situation, the tension they face can affect their view of equine practice as a whole, prompting a switch to a different area of veterinary medicine or even a new industry. This aspect is what I find most concerning, and this is where I think the profession could improve the most.

It must be acknowledged that a certain percentage of recent graduates did not fully understand the unique demands of equine practice and decided that the career was not for them. Without a doubt, equine practice demands a commitment over and above what is generally required in other areas of the profession. Some veterinarians have decided to move on to a career with a more predictable, regular schedule which would allow them more time for other life priorities (most commonly family). From a financial perspective, some recent graduates are simply unable to balance their large student loans and other financial obligations with the low starting salaries of equine practice. This group of individuals has decided to pursue another option which would help them to improve their financial situation.

In some ways, this attrition may actually be beneficial and necessary. Anecdotally, not enough jobs exist for all of the graduates who would like work in equine practice. Additionally, for some individuals, negative experiences in equine practice have affected their lives far beyond the limits of their job. Maintaining mental, physical, and emotional health can be exceptionally difficult for all veterinarians and potentially even more so for equine practitioners. Recognizing this in oneself and taking steps to prioritize one’s own health is something that is often stigmatized in this industry. I believe that individuals who have stepped away from equine medicine for this reason should be commended for their courage in making such a difficult decision.

It is worthwhile to acknowledge that this issue is extremely complex and multi-faceted. There are many stakeholders with varying viewpoints and concerns. Considering the perspectives of both recent graduates and more experienced practitioners (many of whom are practice owners) is valuable.

Recent graduates like myself have worked hard to be admitted to veterinary school, competed for internships, and fought for one of the limited positions available in equine practice. In general, they are not afraid to work hard. They acknowledge the commitment that equine practice requires. They want to be appropriately compensated, mentored, and allowed to develop their skills. They also desire sufficient time away from work to develop or maintain strong relationships, friendships, and hobbies. They want to be treated respectfully by their clients, colleagues, mentors, and practice owners.

Seasoned veterinarians have worked hard to get where they are now. They have sacrificed many things such as vacations, time with family, hobbies, etc. To them, these sacrifices are what is required to be successful and are simply part of the career. To many of them, equine practice is far more than just a job. They are often frustrated by the perceived lack of motivation of more recent graduates. They want to be recognized for their experience and their contributions to equine practice. They want to be treated respectfully by their clients, colleagues, and associates.

I would also like to discuss some potential solutions. First and foremost, we must remember that we all share the same goal. We all work to promote the wellbeing of horses of all demographics with the acknowledgement that all veterinarians are also professionals in a highly competitive service industry. A good place to begin would be to initiate an industry-wide dialogue between recent graduates and more experienced practitioners. We need to openly share viewpoints, frustrations, experiences, and expectations. This requires a willingness to treat others with respect, as well as an openness to facilitate discussion without defensiveness or hostility.

Within practices, I feel that it is essential to develop a system whereby new associates can be mentored and supported. Each graduate comes to their first associate position with a different level of experience. No one is going to be entirely prepared for everything they will have to face. It is in the best interests of the practice owner to ensure that their associate has support available so they can provide the best possible client and patient care. I am extremely grateful to know that if I have a question about a horse, I have many people I can call, including the 10 other veterinarians in my practice. Everyone is always more than willing to help me at any time of day or night. I wish that all recent graduates could have the same level of support. On an industry level, collaboration both between and within practices should be encouraged. This may include call-sharing groups, collaboration with nearby referral centres, merging single-vet practices to form a larger business, seeking ways to promote teamwork within a larger practice, etc. No specific idea will fulfill the requirements for every situation, but a willingness to interact professionally with perceived ‘competitors’ is a starting point for everyone. Additionally, practitioners could share ideas that are working well to attract/maintain the best associates, preserve mental/physical/emotional health, encourage teamwork, and promote a positive working environment.

In conclusion, attrition of recent graduates from the equine veterinary profession is a complicated issue without an easy solution. However, if the industry chooses to view this as an opportunity rather than an overwhelming challenge, there is the potential to change the way the profession is viewed in a way that will continue to make it relevant and valued in the changing dynamics of the world. We could once again be considered leaders and be respected for our professional integrity in our interactions. I strongly believe that we could be role models for the trainers, owners, and riders as well.

If you have anything to add on this topic please add a comment.

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