Would You Trust Your Pet’s Care to a Veterinary Physician Assistant?

By Ken Tudor, DVM on Aug. 11, 2015

For many reasons, veterinary care is moving toward a corporate model of veterinary practice rather than the old fashioned “James Herriott” or “Small Practice with only 1 or 2 Vets” models. This unfortunately means much longer veterinary visits and increased veterinary costs.

This trend will not change for the reasons I will shortly explain. But a solution that I find intriguing is the addition of a “mid-tier” level of veterinary care, much like the human medicine physician assistant. It can save both time and money for consumers and make veterinary care for underserved geographical areas more possible.

Why is Veterinary Medicine Changing to a Corporate Owned Structure?

The move to corporate owned veterinary practice is due to the realities of a veterinary education and the change in work attitude of younger generations. Here are the facts:

  1. The average student loan debt of veterinary students is $152,000 with highs of $350,000. With a national average veterinary wage of only $65,000, corporate positions generally offer more generous wage and benefit packages to pay down this debt.
  1. This generation of veterinary graduates, in general, cannot afford to purchase or build a hospital and fulfill the “James Herriot” model.
  1. New graduates rightfully want a more balanced work/leisure lifestyle, including part-time that can only be accomplished by working for a corporate owned hospital.
  1. There are so many “baby boomer” hospital owners ready to retire that their only possibility is selling their practice to corporate veterinary practice owners.

A New Title for Veterinary Physician Assistants

Corporate veterinary medicine is the new normal. But that is where veterinary PAs may be a blessing. A recent proposal by the associate head of clinical sciences, Dr. Wayne Jensen, at the Veterinary School at Colorado State University, wants to introduce this new mid-tier professional program.

Veterinary Professional Associates (Dr. Jensen’s proposed title) would be graduates of a college Master’s Degree program. This would be much more rigorous and academic challenging than is presently demanded of veterinary technology students, who function much like nurses on the human medical side.

These VPAs would be able to diagnose and recommend treatment for simple ailments. They would be trained to recognize more complex problems that need veterinary consultation and more extensive diagnosis and treatment.

Think of the time savings. You go to a corporate veterinary office and you and your pet are immediately seen by a VPA who can tell you whether you really need to wait to see a vet or can prescribe medications for your pet’s simple problem and get you on your way. And your bill would not sacrifice your child’s college education account or your retirement account.

Think about this for underserved areas of the U.S. where veterinarians are unlikely to invest in veterinary hospitals. There is the affordable availability of immediate veterinary care for simple problems (the most common in veterinary practice), or a referral for conditions requiring much more extensive veterinary intervention. This would be a major benefit to rural, meat and milk producing areas that are presently without adequate veterinary care.

Presently there is a lot of push-back in our profession against this concept. I think it is the most logical approach to solving the evolution toward corporate veterinary medicine and the lack of veterinary student interest in agriculture practice. Why not bond with your VPA rather than see the generic Doctor-of-the-Day veterinarian at your corporate practice? Why not have a qualified VPA “pull that calf” from your dairy cow having a difficult birth, or do a “pregnancy check” for those 100 heifer beef cows when no vet is available within a several hour drive?

Would you trust a properly trained VPA with your pet’s health? Share your thoughts here.

Dr. Ken Tudor

Image: VGstockstudio / Shutterstock


Ken Tudor, DVM


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