Surfing the Wave of Veterinary Specialization (Watch That Reef!)
Ever wonder how it is that veterinary specialists are born? It happens the moment they decide they’d like to spend a little more time laboring in the ivory tower despite having to sink a lot more money into getting schooled. All in the hopes that a more intellectually challenging and financially rewarding career will result.
Specialty medicine — veterinary or otherwise — has traditionally been the ambitious kids’ stomping grounds. You know who they are. They’re the ones who know they’re brighter, more charming, harder working, or … fill-in-the-blank. They believe they deserve more than the baseline for their talents, and they’re willing to work and pay for it.
But it’s not just them. Increasingly it’s also the practical minded, financially put-upon students who are taking specialty medicine seriously. These are the students whose incredible outlays for the pleasure of receiving a vet education mean they might not have the luxury of practicing general medicine. Because to pay off outsized loans, an outsized education is sometimes in order. Or so goes the conventional wisdom.
Even before I started vet school I knew I wanted to take my education beyond the four years required for basic veterinary doctorship. My problem? My big ego and my cat allergies (long since resolved — the cat thing, anyway). Honestly I can’t say which was more of a problem. Either way, I wasn’t prepared to commit to a specialty group. I mean, narrow my focus? Somehow that didn’t seem suited to my innate skill set. (I’m not a detail person.) So I signed up for a business education instead.
Fast-forward fifteen years and I can see how a specialty education has its benefits. After all, my (younger!) vet specialist boyfriend easily brings in twice my take for roughly the same hours of work.
In case you’re wondering, I’m not exactly talking out of school. It’s no secret. The stats back it up. Experienced specialists do make more. How much more? According to a recent investigation, it’s roughly on the order of what a successful practice owner makes. Which is a lot more than what an average associate takes down.
But what happens when lots more students flock to the pre-specialty track in the hopes of cashing in on the same?
That’s the current trend we’re surfing in veterinary medicine. Far more budding veterinarians say they want to be specialists (almost 50 percent of them!), and far fewer say they’re interested in practice ownership.
Observe what a similar trend has done for human medicine. Some would argue that it’s not just the measly Medicare reimbursements to blame. The rise of specialization, it’s been advanced, has gutted general practice as a discipline. Which is why it’s so damn hard to find a great GP.
Whether you accept this description of the human medical model (perhaps chalking it up to my grievous oversimplification), the reality of what’s happening across the country is unmissable: Veterinary medicine is making way for greater specialization not just by virtue of a bigger tuition bill, but via more internship and residency slots (mostly in private practice).
So why should you care? Isn’t it obvious? Though you might argue that the quality of your care as a whole may rise as more newly minted grads take on internships and vie for residencies (which they may or may not ultimately make it into or complete), it’s nonetheless the case that general practice may be threatened as a consequence.
And what does that mean for your chances of getting the cream of the crop as your go-to vet? Let’s just say it doesn’t bode well. But then, that’s a grievous oversimplification, too. As is this pithy possibility: Maybe what’s best for animals is for fewer veterinarians to rush to specialize, when a business education might be more along the lines of what the doctor ordered.
Dr. Patty Khuly