Opinion: Florida needs more veterinarians

Editor’s note: The following opinion piece, co-authored by Dr. Dana Zimmel, dean of the UF College of Veterinary Medicine, and Dr. Scott Angle, senior vice president of the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources and head of UF-IFAS, was published in numerous news outlets throughout Florida and beyond in January.

Dr. Stephanie Kirschman

Dr. Stephanie Kirchman, based in Sebring, sees 10,000 cattle a year and never says no, but too often she has to say not right now.

Working animals account for billions of dollars in sales, spending and jobs in Florida — when they’re healthy. They need doctors just like you and I do.

There aren’t enough of them. There’s a national shortage of veterinarians, especially those who treat large animals.

It’s not hard to see why. They make less on average than small animal veterinarians. They work long and unpredictable hours making “house calls” on patients that can’t come to an office.

“You can drive and drive, and still not get to all the calls some days because of the distances in these areas without other available veterinarians,” says Sebring-based Dr. Stephanie Kirchman.

That can generate angst among rural veterinarians who are already in many cases carrying six-figure student debt loads.

It all adds up to an economic threat to a state with a herd of 1.7 million beef cattle and dairy cows, more horses than Kentucky and an alarming decline in manatees.

Dr. Dana Zimmel

Dr. Dana Zimmel

With all this at stake, it’s frustrating that the state’s only veterinary college has to turn away more than 1,500 applicants a year. That’s not elitism, although the University of Florida’s College of Veterinary Medicine is an elite institution. The problem is limited capacity.

We’ve asked the Legislature to help us make room for more students. We need space, instructors and everything else that goes into educating Florida’s future veterinarians.

It should matter to you not just if you eat hamburgers, drink milk or make a living selling goods and services to tourists seeking manatees. Ranches and dairies produce tax revenue that rural governments depend on to fund vital public services like police and schools. They employ tens of thousands of your neighbors. And they’re a bulwark against urban encroachment as our human population grows (and the pet population grows with it).

We need more Kirchmans. A 2015 UF veterinary graduate, Kirchman tends to cattle in rural Florida counties. Ranchers rely on her to check for cow pregnancies, bulls’ breeding soundness and other medical information to inform decisions managing thousands of animals.

But she simply can’t get to everyone who needs her. She sees 10,000 cattle a year and never says no, but too often she has to say not right now. She’s even had someone bring her an animal from Fort Myers because they could not find a closer veterinarian to treat it.

Dr. Scott Angle

Dr. Scott Angle

We need to admit more students to UF Vet Med, and we need to convince more of them to choose programs like our food animal medicine program. We currently do this through scholarships targeting students pursuing food animal medicine. We’re reaching out to our undergraduate animal science majors in the UF College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, many of whom declare themselves as pre-vet. And we’re seeking industry mentors who can familiarize prospective future veterinarians with the opportunities available in a career treating cattle and dairy patients.

We also support expanding federal loan repayment programs for veterinary school graduates who work in rural areas.

We’re asking for funding from the Legislature to increase our admit class by 20 students a year. We’re also investing tuition and animal hospital revenue into our hoped-for larger class of future veterinarians. And UF has committed to $4.7 million in expansion of our anatomy and surgery labs to make this possible.

We’re advocating for patients who can’t report symptoms, have neither health insurance nor regard for whether they are a threat to spread disease. They don’t have enough access to a doctor. An investment in the UF College of Veterinary Medicine is part of the solution.

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