When I was in veterinary school, there were already concerns that a veterinarian shortage could be on the horizon. I remember my veterinary school specifically recruiting for students who were interested in agricultural, equine, or mixed-animal practices. Companion animal practices were not really feeling the urgency at the time. And yet, only 10 years later, here we are: in crisis mode.
Some elements of the talent shortage were visible to us. Veterinary hospitals have always had high turnover. I have been in practice 12 years now, and I can honestly say I have worked in more short-staffed hospitals than fully staffed hospitals. We carefully and thoughtfully reviewed all candidates for open positions. Open positions sometimes took a long time to fill. We just accepted this was part of doing business.
The COVID-19 pandemic really put the industry’s feet to the fire. Before 2020, we were hanging in there and making it work. Everyone was doing what they could. Relief veterinarians and technicians were often brought in to fill the gaps. When COVID hit, our safety net was torn away without any warning. Today it is clear that when we lose team members, we do not have anyone else waiting to fill the open positions. Demand for veterinary talent soared to all-time, historic highs – while consumer demand for veterinary services accelerated with the pandemic “puppy boom.”
As conversation progressed about this critical issue, it became clear that the talent shortage is not the only topic that required action. Yes, there is a shortage. But there are also root causes contributing to that shortage that need immediate and committed attention.
Faced with epic challenges, VCA moved decisively toward action.
We have been fortunate to lead the discussion with our Associates, leadership, peers, and partners within Mars Veterinary Health. Thoughtful conversation has sparked a series of important initiatives.
We saw our teams were struggling, and we have taken action to support them.
Connecting internally. One of our first action items was the dedication of my role, as director of Equity, Inclusion and Diversity programs, in January 2021. Next, we established Equity, Inclusion & Diversity Councils within Mars Veterinary Health and VCA in alignment with Mars EI&D best practices. Together, we will build a more vibrant and diverse veterinary workforce by celebrating our Associates and workplace culture. Our 2022 milestone was the launch of Diversity Resource Groups, also known as employee resource groups. The DRGs are voluntary, employee-led collaborations that foster constructive conversations, personal growth and development, cross-team communication, and positive change. Until now, there were few opportunities for Associates – even in the same cities or markets – to meet each other, have a dialogue, or unite around a common cause. Our hospitals really did not have a chance to meet and know each other. With the DRGs, all Associates now have a voice and the opportunity to learn, share, engage, network, and grow. Members have an opportunity to engage with a wide variety of life experiences, perspectives, and learnings. Together, the DRGs will work to build a stronger sense of workplace belonging for those who might not have felt seen or heard in the past. That is what we need to move VCA culture forward. It’s so exciting that we are just now beginning to unlock the capabilities of the DRGs!
“This is a marathon, not a sprint. This is a monumental and meaningful journey.”
Investing in youth. It is so important to encourage young people who are interested in veterinary medicine. This is an inspiring career, and it is important that we support them. We have partnered with two great youth programs to help provide access to information, show kids what it is really like to work in veterinary practice and give them opportunities meet veterinary role models.
Our first partnership was with the Monty Tech High School veterinary service program. Through high school coursework, Monty Tech students can rotate through a real-life veterinary hospital. They learn about the rhythms and routines of the role, gain direct experience, and network with trained veterinary professionals. Over time, we hope to create more programs like Monty Tech around the nation.
But that is still not enough. Data shows veterinarians decide on their career path when they are between 10 and 13 years old. (I told my parents I wanted to be a veterinarian when I was only 7 or 8 years old!) Unfortunately, there are no connective experiences available to educate and engage middle school students seeking a future in veterinary medicine. Without cultivation and support, many emerging veterinarians lose their interest and sway into other career paths.
To support this critical age group with career possibilities, we are also supporting Vet Set Go—the first and only community dedicated to helping aspiring veterinarians in elementary, middle school and high school. The program’s goal is simple: to help future veterinarians explore their dream today.
Vet Set Go provides scholarships to veterinary camps and provides free educational content and games to hundreds of thousands of future veterinarians across the globe. Of course, not every kid who says they want to be a veterinarian will follow through on all the years of required training. But we need to tap into that early motivation and show them they can.
Addressing mental health and wellbeing concerns. Veterinary professionals are an empathetic, caring group, and we can take too much onto our shoulders and hearts. We want to give it all. And we do!
We give support to our clients, patients, teams—but we too often neglect ourselves. Today we are particularly seeing the negative impact of that neglect in the profession. At VCA, we have a strong health and wellbeing team—and we are so aware of the intersection between diversity, inclusion, equity, and wellbeing. Education and support are both critical to our future success.
VCA’s Health & Well-being team is blazing a trail by providing our practice teams with terrific support and resources. They are running an exciting pilot program that offers hospital teams and clients the support of professional social workers, who help manage difficult conversations and take a huge emotional burden off the practice team that is working to provide patient care. It is exciting to see these successes continue to grow.
Anchoring in our communities. In another effort, VCA Animal Hospitals is supporting the Atlanta Humane Society in opening a new veterinary clinic this spring. The clinic will provide veterinary care to pet owners who are experiencing financial hardship, focusing on helping the most vulnerable pets in an underserved community. In additional to financial support, VCA will provide veterinary talent to staff the clinic. And VCA is supporting an externship program within the new hospital and at Atlanta Humane to give veterinary students experience—and first-hand insight into the importance of delivering access to affordable veterinary care.
I see all of this as only the beginning.
It is a big statement to say we are taking care of the future of veterinary medicine. But it reflects our seriousness about this mission. We have not only accepted the challenge, but we are also fully committed to delivering real world change. This effort is a marathon, not a sprint. This is a monumental and meaningful journey. And we are so thankful to every Associate who has joined us!
Dr. Marshall graduated in 2010 from Michigan State University College of Veterinary Medicine, and she holds a B.S. in Animal and Poultry Sciences from Tuskegee University. While at MSU, she created the college's chapter of "VOICE" - Veterinarians as One Inclusive Community for Empowerment. Prior to her appointment to Director, Equity, Inclusion & Diversity Programs, Dr. Marshall served as the Medical Director for VCA Terrell Mill Animal Hospital in Marietta, GA.