An indecent proposal: Should we swap continuing education requirements for volunteer hours?
In most states in the U.S., being a licensed veterinarian means you have to complete a certain number of hours of continuing education every year or so. This helps ensure your average vet professional is up to date on the science, medicine and regulations that affect your pets' health. Crucial stuff, I'd say. But not every state takes the same tack.
Indeed, some states require zero hours of continuing education ("CE," as we like to call it), while others compel their veterinarians to prove their mettle with a workload of advanced learning requirements other professionals might find onerous.
Twenty hours a year of extra study is pretty average, I'd say. This means most veterinarians spend about half a normal American’s work week per year sitting in a lecture hall amassing credits to help meet licensing requirements.
Though there's no perfect way to ensure any veterinarian will actually learn anything new, the mandated CE approach has been a mainstay of vet quality assurance for decades now, just as it has for most other licensed professionals in this country.
In some states, however, CE takes a back seat to a veterinarian's professional autonomy. This approach presupposes that these individuals are responsible members of their professional community. Why, then, enact expensive, restrictive, stressful legislation that requires they study up when they almost certainly already do?
After all, lots of what we veterinarians do on a regular basis to maintain our edge isn't even measurable by CE standards. Case in point: blogging/writing/lecturing about veterinary medicine, reading scientific literature and/or attending journal clubs, coloring my way through the Anatomy Coloring Book as a comparative anatomy refresher …
So why not leave veterinarians to their own devices?
The answer is obvious: Because such legislation is often deemed necessary to ensure that the lowest common denominator veterinarian isn't playing fast and loose with his or her know-how. Proving a minimum standard of I-can-keep-up-with-the-best sends a message to all veterinarians: "This is what's expected of you. Your colleagues will accept nothing less. Ignore your knowledge base at your own peril."
Yet states like New Jersey have been slow to adopt the notion of mandatory CE for relicensure. In spite of the fact that the state's veterinary association was fighting hard for it, New Jersey dragged its feet … then offered to happily accept hours undertaken in a volunteer capacity in lieu of traditional CE credits.
Translation: Instead of requiring its veterinarians to stay current on their clinical skills and basic science knowledge, the New Jersey Legislature thought it would be a good idea to let its veterinarians show they're good enough by allowing them to offer free spays and neuters instead. The New Jersey vet association claimed this plan "gutted" the entire concept of mandatory CE.
In the end, Governor Christie quashed the concept; mostly, anyhow. In New Jersey you can still replace a tenth of your CE credits with volunteer hours.
So here's where I ask you the tough question: Given the severity of our animal overpopulation problem, is it more beneficial to augment the total volunteer hours the average veterinarian might offer by adding a work-for-CE option? Or is the traditional educational-requirement method likelier to serve all of our pets in the long run?
I know how I feel. But, as always, you're free to disagree. How do you vote?
Dr. Patty Khuly