Rural areas need more veterinarians; low pay, student debt make choice difficult

Rural veterinary clinics, especially those practicing on large animals like cattle, have been declining since World War II, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

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National News

September 12, 2022 - 4:07 PM

For as long as she can remember, Dr. Cyrena Hull wanted to be a veterinarian — she recalls how as a child she would pretend to hook up her stuffed animals to makeshift IVs.

Hull began working at the Perry Veterinary Hospital in Perry, Oklahoma, straight out of veterinary school six years ago. She’s one of the two doctors that work at the small town clinic, and her experiences growing up in rural Colorado make working in the town feel like home.

“I love the profession. I love what I do,” Hull said. “It’s just really pretty crazy to look at the debt load that it takes to get there.”

Hull currently has more than $100,000 of student loan debt from medical school.

Rural veterinary clinics, especially those practicing on large animals like cattle, have been declining since World War II, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. As of 2020, less than 2% of private practices nationwide were exclusively large-animal clinics and less than 6% were mixed-animal clinics, like Perry Veterinary Hospital, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association.

Low wages are one of the biggest discouraging factors for graduates deciding where to practice, said Dr. Daniel Grooms, the dean of Iowa State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine.

“There are financial barriers to going into rural practice,” Grooms said. “Typically, rural practices have lower salaries than practices that are located in more populated areas.”

In 2019, Grooms and two students surveyed veterinary students and clinics across Iowa to understand why there’s a shortage of veterinarians in rural parts of the state. In addition to low salaries, they found that long hours and the potential lack of mentorship also contributed to the shortage.

“The ability to have balance in your life in a rural practice can be challenging,” Grooms said, “especially if it’s a one- or two-person practice versus a larger practice with multiple doctors and lots of help.”

The Debt Problem

Since 2010, the USDA has offered the Veterinary Medical Loan Repayment Program, a loan repayment program aimed at helping rural veterinarians. It identifies rural vet shortage areas and pays off some student loans for vets who get accepted into the program and set up shop there. Those veterinarians can get up to $75,000 over three years.

But the awarded amount is less than half of today’s average loan debt for graduating veterinarians. U.S. veterinarians graduate from medical school with nearly $200,000 in debt, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association. Dr. Robert Smith, who oversees the loan repayment program, said there’s talk of increasing the amount they give out.

“We see [debt] numbers for individuals up to a half million dollars,” Smith said. “I mean, it really makes you cringe and wonder how they’re ever going to pay that back.”

Yet, even if more money does become available, earning the repayment award isn’t easy. That’s partly because the program only awards one veterinarian per designated area of need, and the application process can be daunting.

Just over half of the 144 veterinarians that applied for the program last year received the award. Eligible veterinarians are required to fill out and submit seven different forms on top of a resume, a copy of unofficial transcripts and loan documents. For busy veterinarians like Hull, the application can be discouraging.

“There’s a lot of hoops to jump through,” she said. “I’m not sure it’s worth the time it takes away from my family or clients, which is already difficult to find a balance there.”

Although USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture hosts informational webinars about the program’s application process, Smith said it’s something he hopes the program can improve on.

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