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More than a dozen Alabama counties have a shortage of food animal veterinarians. Food animal veterinarians play a critical role in maintaining the health of animals in the food system by providing important disease testing and health care to the beef, swine, poultry and dairy industries.

However, encouraging new veterinarians to practice in production agriculture, particularly in rural areas, is a long-running problem throughout the country.

A team of faculty at Auburn was recently awarded $246,000 by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture to recruit veterinarians to shortage areas and support existing veterinarians already serving the areas.

“Auburn is committed to solving the rural practice problem,” said Glen Sellers, practice management director at Auburn’s College of Veterinary Medicine (CVM) and member of the grant team. “They need veterinarians in rural communities.”

Enticing new veterinarians to practice in production agriculture in rural areas has several challenges. Two of the most important factors are salary and well-being, according to Sellers. Working in a suburban clinic treating dogs and cats is often more lucrative, and the hours are shorter and more regular. There is also less time spent on the road and fewer emergency calls, which usually means a better work-life balance.

To address the issue, Sellers and a team of veterinarians at Auburn have created a program for rural veterinarians and current veterinary students. It focuses on the financial sustainability of rural veterinary practices and connecting students to practices where they might work after graduation.

“We’re trying to look at the problem very broad brush … almost from a holistic point of view,” said Sellers, referring to the multi-pronged plan. “But my point of view has always been that it starts in those rural practices.”

Sellers and a team of veterinary students on the Auburn University Practice Management Rotation spend three days working with veterinary owners in rural practices in shortage areas and offer their expertise to help the practice better manage their clinic’s finances with an eye toward growth, sustainability and, potentially, hiring additional veterinarians. The students apply the financial knowledge they have learned in their coursework to real-world practices in this unique experience.

Over three 10- to 15-hour days, the team will collect mounds of financial and clinical data, which they synthesize into a hefty report. They will highlight market opportunities to increase profitability, as well as make recommendations for new technology to improve efficiency. This consultation is a $10,000-$20,000 value for the rural practice, according to Sellers. The best part is the students present the report back to the veterinary owners.

“One of the biggest weaknesses I see in rural practices is just the lack of financial education,” Sellers said. “Veterinarians go to professional school to become veterinarians, and the business side of veterinary medicine is pushed to the back burner.”  

Auburn’s leadership and faculty are working to broaden the curriculum to address the needs of the graduating veterinarians and prepare them for a future to better care for their patients and their careers as they enter the workforce. Auburn's CVM has incorporated a mandatory professional development and business fundamentals course along with the elective practice management business rotation.

Sellers has worked at Auburn for 29 years. In 2016, his role expanded to include a focus on veterinary business and teaching vet students about practice management. He described the impact financial analysis can have on a rural clinic. In one instance, a report to a rural veterinarian revealed his friendly discounts to clients had amounted to $100,000 annually.

In some cases, veterinarians are skeptical of the process. However, Sellers said, “If you give them six months to read through the document, they will come back and say, ‘Are you serious? How do we do this?’”

The second prong of the program focuses on current students. At least eight Auburn veterinary students will be selected to participate in externship and preceptorship programs yearly until the end of the grant, which expose them to the challenges and opportunities of rural practices and connect them with existing veterinary clinics in shortage areas.

The summer externship opportunities are for first and second-year veterinary students seeking to experience rural practices for two-weeks. The grant will fund stipends of $800 to each extern student for the two-week experience in a shortage area. Preceptorships are eight-week programs where fourth-year students nearing graduation practice under the supervision of a veterinarian at a rural clinic. The grant will fund stipends of $4,000 to each preceptor who goes to a shortage area.

This exposure to rural practice with food animal veterinarians is increasingly important as fewer people have a direct connection to farming and the majority of veterinary students come from cities and suburbs.

“We might be three to four generations removed [from the farm] now,” said Jenna Bayne, a farm animal associate clinical professor at Auburn’s CVM and member of the grant team.

Consequently, many veterinary students go to veterinary school with little knowledge of the food animal veterinarian career path. This program allows interested students to explore this critical area of veterinary practice.

The third prong of the program is to provide continuing education at a reduced cost to veterinarians serving in the shortage areas. Grant funds will help vets attend CVM’s annual conference and the Alabama and Georgia Veterinary Medical Association’s Southern Food and Farm Veterinary Summit.

In addition to Bayne and Sellers, the Auburn grant team also includes Drs. Manuel Chamorro, Jessica Rush and Melinda Camus from CVM. The team has several partners, including the Alabama State Veterinarian’s Office, Alabama Cattlemen’s Association, Alabama Veterinary Medical Association and local veterinarians. The grant is funded by the United States Department of Agriculture.

The three-year program ends in 2025.