Colorado faces a serious shortage of veterinarians and vet techs; some solutions may be at hand

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18min 36sec
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Vet techs prep a cat for treatment inside Colorado State University’s new Spur Campus at the National Western Center in Elyria Swansea. Jan. 11, 2022.

Being turned away when your pet needs medical care is something no one wants to experience. But it's increasingly a reality as Colorado faces a critical shortage of veterinarians and vet techs.

“We absolutely need more in our workforce and we need to hang on to the people that are already in our workforce because that's also a problem,” said state Representative Karen McCormick, a Democratic lawmaker from Longmont, who herself is a veterinarian.

Those close to the issue say this shortage has reached a point where it's ultimately hurting animals and their owners. It's estimated that there are about 3,800 vets able to care for about 2.5 million dogs and cats in Colorado, and that's not including horses and other farm animals.

“We don't have enough veterinary schools across the nation,” said McCormick. “And the students that come out of CSU, about 80% of those students go into companion animal medicine. And so our shelter animal spaces and our large animal, farm animal populations are really bearing the brunt of this shortage.”

Rep. McCormick spoke with Colorado Matters host Chandra Thomas Whitfield.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity

Chandra Thomas Whitfield: You have the unique distinction of being a veterinarian turned lawmaker, so I would imagine this issue is very close to your heart.

Rep. Karen McCormick: It really is. I've been in this field now for 40 years, and knowing that, it is really important that we look at this through the needs of our pet-owning population as well as our farm animals is absolutely near and dear to me.

Thomas Whitfield: A recent survey of veterinarians by Colorado State University's Animal Human Policy Center found that 70% of vet practices are now having to turn away animals every week because they can't keep up with the demand. What's happening with those pets that are being turned away?

McCormick: Often they are being diverted from one practice perhaps to another, or those folks have to wait a little bit longer than they would normally want to. So historically, veterinarians have always been driven to help people, and so when we say "turn away,” I would rather frame that in the context of diverting or potentially delaying if available, if it's something that's not an urgent issue or an emergency. But we absolutely need more in our workforce and we need to hang on to the people that are already in our workforce because that's also a problem.

Thomas Whitfield: This is especially concerning and maybe a bit surprising because Colorado of course is home to Colorado State University's College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, which is considered one of the top three veterinary programs in the nation. How is it possible to have such a critical shortage in the state with such a high-ranking institution nearby?

McCormick: That is a really good question. There are only about 29 veterinary schools across this nation. Our CSU school is renowned across the nation, and consequently, the classes that are at CSU, there's about 75% of those students that come from out of state. So whether or not those students after they graduate stay in Colorado is a question. They may be going back to their own states. We don't have enough veterinary schools across the nation. And also the students that come out of CSU, about 80% of those students go into companion animal medicine. And so our shelter animal spaces and our large animal, farm animal populations are really bearing the brunt of this shortage.

There is help on the way though not only at CSU. CSU is in the process of building a brand new general practice primary care facility to help train their veterinarians more in the primary care space. They are adding about 30 students to each class coming in two years, so going from about 150 students per class to 180. And across the nation, there are about 10 to 12 veterinary schools in various stages of development and coming online. So there is a lot of help on the way that's been kind of the pipeline of trying to increase our veterinary population across the nation. And it's projected that we are going to meet the need by 2030, which is just six years away.

David Zalubowski/AP
A sculpture stands outside the front door of the veterinary school at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colo.

Thomas Whitfield: What have you learned in terms of the root causes of this vet and vet tech shortage in Colorado? And what's exacerbating the situation right now?

McCormick: The biggest issue is in the farm animal space, and those veterinarians are having a harder and harder time finding somebody to come in and take over their practices. If you don't come from a rural area, it's hard to go from veterinary school and live in a rural area if you're not used to that type of lifestyle. And we have not necessarily had a focus on making sure that we are mentoring those students all the way through veterinary schools so that when they get out, they will still want to go back to their rural communities and set up or buy a preexisting practice. We have so many practitioners that are in their late sixties or seventies that can't find somebody to take over their practice.

So, I think we need to look further up the chain, the pipeline of producing veterinarians, and make sure that we start with students that really want to end up in those places. And the economics of practicing large animal medicine versus companion animals has skewed the population towards the companion animal space. So we need to rethink how we fix this problem, and there are great minds and great people in this space and in the colleges across the nation that are looking at this.

Thomas Whitfield: We're talking about veterinarians, which you are, and also vet techs. Are the issues different in terms of the shortages of each of those professions?

McCormick: They are hugely different. Two years ago we passed the update of the Veterinary Practice Act. And for the first time in Colorado history, we recognize veterinary technicians as a profession regulated under DORA, and they all have title protection now, which was a huge deal because if we don't recognize this profession as the highly qualified, trained, credentialed profession that they are, we are not utilizing the people in this profession to the full extent of their training. Consequently, they're not earning the potential income that they could be earning. They're not being used to help with the efficiencies of being able to see more people in each practice. And we're losing veterinary technicians at an average of seven years in the profession. And guess where they're going? They're going into human nursing, because they have the skills, they can get additional training, and then they can utilize those skills. They have more job satisfaction, they get paid more. And so one of the bills that we have brought forward is to address that very issue.

Thomas Whitfield: What does that include?

McCormick: House Bill 24-1047 is a veterinary technician scope of practice bill that will not only outline all of the things that veterinary technicians are able to do, not necessarily all of them, but to give the people working in the profession, veterinary teams, a better idea of what we should be delegating to veterinary technicians. It will actually expand what they're able to do in the field of dentistry. Many of our veterinary technicians do the dental procedures on our companion animals, but they so far have not been allowed to do any extractions. And this bill will allow that in certain circumstances. It will also allow them to address minor wound treatment and some minor medical conditions and help with surgical closures.

So we're really stretching the ability of the certified veterinary technician, the registered veterinary technician, to do more of what they're capable and trained to do. Consequently, they'll help veterinary practices with their bottom line and they'll be able to be paid more and they'll have better job satisfaction and they'll stay because they love animals and they love helping people with their animals. And so this is a way for us to recognize that profession for the incredible help that they give to animals across our state.

Thomas Whitfield: You're also pushing for more expansion in terms of telehealth options. Can you tell us more about that?

McCormick: We consider telehealth as the whole spectrum of the utilization of tele technologies and the bill, House Bill 24-1048 not only defines all of those terms that are incorporated in tele technologies, but it will better define exactly what telemedicine is. Telemedicine itself is when you are a veterinarian and you are interacting with an animal caretaker and you are making a diagnosis and potentially prescribing something via these tele technology platforms. And so, in that respect, what's important about the bill and what we are doing is to bring what has always been in the Colorado Veterinary Board of Medicine statute and rules, in order to be able to practice telemedicine. It's critically important that a person have a veterinarian-client-patient relationship established. And that's a legal term that I would love to be able to go into more if you'd like to hear more.

Thomas Whitfield: From what I understand, it means that they have had to have seen this patient before telehealth can come into play. Is that correct?

McCormick: Right. That is correct. So as long as the veterinarian has seen the patient, set up that relationship with that owner, or if it's a large animal situation, they've been to the farm or ranch at least once so that they can know their husbandry practices, the lay of the land, where the poisonous plants are on the field, whatever it is that that veterinarian takes in on that visit, then at the veterinarian's discretion and depending on the medical issue, they can decide to move forward with a telemedicine visit if applicable to that situation. But without that baseline, that's where we can get into trouble with problems and patient safety issues as well as liability issues. And more importantly, we start to run afoul of FDA prescribing law if we venture into that space where we don't have that defined VCPR in place.

Thomas Whitfield: Any other legislation in the pipeline?

McCormick: There is another piece that is coming through. It has not been heard in committee yet. It is House Bill 24-1271, and it is a tax credit where we are putting forth some tax incentives for veterinarians, for veterinary technicians, for buyers, and potentially maybe even sellers of practices in these underserved, under-resourced areas of our state. Those terms are going to be hard to define in statute, so we will have some rulemaking ability to define what are the under-resourced and underserved areas in our state. Because those might change over the next five to seven years, and we want to have that flexibility to be able to direct those tax credits where they will help the most.

Thomas Whitfield: We talked earlier about farm animals like horses and cows. What's being done to support our rural areas?

McCormick: So all three of these bills that are coming through will absolutely support the rural areas. In fact, we have full support of the Farm Bureau, Colorado Cattlemen's Association, the Colorado Livestock Association, and the Colorado Veterinary Medical Association, which encompasses most all of our veterinarians in the state, because they know that if we can utilize our veterinary technicians to the full extent of their training and expertise. We have different levels of supervision outlined in the bill as well so that there are some things that certified veterinary technicians, registered veterinary technicians can do while they're on one farm where the veterinarian might be on another farm, which will help tremendously. There are provisions where our veterinarians will be able to hopefully take advantage of those tax credits when they've been holding on to their practice for a really long time and they're really trying to find somebody to buy their practice. So hopefully it'll help some of those transitions, so that not only do we hold onto (existing practices), we're not creating more deserts where some veterinarians are covering multiple counties. And perhaps we can even extend this tax credit to people that set up a new practice. We're considering looking at our mobile veterinarians that may not have a brick-and-mortar building to help everyone and to make sure that we try to bring up that imbalance in our farm animal space.

Thomas Whitfield: What would you like people to know about this critical shortage of veterinarians and vet techs here in Colorado?

McCormick: Most importantly, I want them to know that as a veterinarian, being elected to the state legislature, I never really thought I was going to be working on veterinary issues to tell you the truth, but I see how important it is that you have somebody from the profession when laws are being made about your profession. And like I said at the beginning, we've been working on these policies for two years with everybody's voices involved. So I would let the public know that these policies have been well-worked.