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The Veterinary Profession Has A Math Problem

Have you seen the recent report titled the Merck Animal Health Veterinary Wellbeing Study? Apparently, there had been a number of recent studies suggesting that veterinarians were suffering from increased levels of stress, as well as a high rate of suicide within the profession. This study wanted to delve into these issues and see if there was truly a mental health crisis amongst veterinarians. In case you haven’t read the report, here were some key findings:

  1. Mental illness rates are not statistically different from the general population.
  2. Many veterinarians that have mental illness are not receiving proper treatment.
  3. Measures of wellbeing are lower than the general population.
  4. Debt, stress, suicide rate among vets, and ability to retire comfortably were the top concerns.
  5. Only 41% of veterinarians would recommend this profession to friends or family.
  6. Male veterinarians had a higher wellbeing score than female veterinarians.
  7. Student debt had a negative impact on wellbeing.

I think you would agree that there are a whole HOST of issues that can lead to stress and burnout in this profession. The long hours, the cases that don’t go as planned, the clients having certain expectations that you can’t meet, the personality clashes at work….the list can go on.

And then there’s debt. It’s the four letter word that no one wants to think or talk about.

So why does debt matter so much to veterinarians? Because compared to other health professionals, the amount of debt you carry compared to your income is too high. In fact, a 2013 New England Journal of Medicine study showed that veterinarians ranked first in this category comparing the debt to income ratio (DIR) among different health professions.

The latest numbers show that DIR is increasing. The mean starting salary for a veterinarian in 2016 was $73,380 (full time employment, not including internships and residencies), while the mean debt for graduates was $143,758. This gives us a debt to income ratio of 2:1, which is another way of saying that you owe twice as much as what you make in an entire year.  Of course, this is just taking into account your educational debt.  Many graduates have other forms of debt, such as credit card debt.  And then there are the future prospects of taking on more debt in the form of a mortgage, a car loan, and a business loan.

What is attributing to this lopsided ratio?  Basically, income has barely gone up while educational debt has skyrocketed in the past decade.  And unfortunately, that pattern doesn’t appear to be changing anytime soon.

THIS SITUATION LOOKS BAD! WHAT’S BEING DONE?

This situation has not gone unnoticed. The AVMA held a Fix The Debt Summit in 2016 to discuss ways to lower the DIR to a more healthy 1.4:1. Here is a summary of some strategies that were discussed at the meeting:

Reducing debt:
1. Increasing scholarship endowments
2. Enhancing student financial literacy
3. Streamlining the veterinary school curriculum
4. Advocating to governments
5. Minimizing the cost of borrowing

Increasing income:
1. Building professional skills and competencies
2. Improving workplace on-boarding
3. Focusing on preventive medicine
4. Increasing practice ownership literacy
5. Expanding career option awareness

As you can see, this is going to require a massive amount of collaboration between veterinary programs, universities, the government, and the community at large. These strategies, if implemented, could easily take years to complete. However, one area that I think will have the most immediate and direct impact on each aspiring or current veterinary student is financial literacy.

I AM ANOTHER STATISTIC

I know that in my case, I would have personally benefitted from basic financial literacy. As a college student, I gave almost no thought to the cost of a veterinary education. I assumed that any debt incurred during schooling was going to be a good investment in my future ability to earn income. Honestly, I just wanted enough of an income to pay off my debt and live a comfortable, not lavish, lifestyle. Let’s be honest- veterinarians are well aware that this is not a lucrative career, and they pursue this degree out of a true passion for veterinary medicine.

Before I knew it, I was graduating with nearly $120,000 in student loans that were on track to be paid off in 30 years. I didn’t even consider applying for internships or pursuing a residency because I felt the pressure to start paying these loans off ASAP.

Then I got married. And had children. And month after month, I would faithfully pay my loans. I eventually got tired of the idea that this loan would be paid off decades away, so I made the decision with my husband to pay these loans off more aggressively. Although my student loans are now paid in full,  I still feel the pain of this burden every time I see another story about new graduates being saddled with an enormous amount of debt.

I look back and see multiple opportunities where I could have made better choices. I could have researched the cost of education more fully. I could have budgeted more carefully while I was in school in order to decrease the total amount borrowed. And had I been more financially savvy as a new grad, I am certain that I would have made better financial choices coming out of school.

Of course, hindsight is 20/20.  It’s also possible that I could have been presented with a detailed cost analysis of attending veterinary school and chose to ignore all of the facts.  But at least I would have been given the chance to make that choice.  I would like to think that increased openness, transparency, and commiseration with fellow students in a similar situation could have propelled me to make better choices.

LOOKING AHEAD

Veterinary programs are slowly coming around to incorporating personal finance into their curricula. Both the AVMA and VIN have websites dedicated to educating aspiring veterinarians to consider the financial aspects of attending veterinary school. But based on a 2015 survey of SAVMA chapters, it is clear that veterinary students are still feeling like they are in the dark when it comes to financial literacy and student loans. Here is a rundown of their responses to the survey:

  1. 64% said that loan repayment options were not included in their curriculum
  2. 37% said that they were not aware of federal loan repayment resources
  3. Out of this cohort of 37%, only 24% thought that the resources were easily accessible
  4. 34% said that their program had a full time financial counselor

This simply is not acceptable. How can we expect these graduates to have a long, fulfilling career if they are not aware of how the cost of a veterinary education will affect them in the long run?  These stats also focus on student loan repayment, which is just a piece of the puzzle when it comes to overall financial literacy.  The sooner we arm these students with basic financial knowledge, the better they will be able to prepare for what lies ahead.

The Merck study concluded that “veterinary medicine is not in a state of crisis.” Perhaps when it comes to mental illness, there is not a crisis. But there is no question that having a large loan burden can lead to a financial crisis. For the sake of the profession, it is my hope that the math will work out in favor of veterinary medicine.

What are your thoughts?  Do you feel as though the profession is in a financial crisis right now?  Comment below!

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