The looming vet tech shortage: Yes, it could get worse

There were 118,000 veterinary technicians in the US at the end of 2019. And if your hospital’s short-staffed, you know that’s not nearly enough.

Just wait 8 years. In 2030, you’ll be calling these “the good old days.”

This is Part Two of a two-part story on a report released this month from Mars Veterinary Health called Tackling the Veterinary Professional Shortage. The report highlights three studies conducted by James Lloyd, DVM, PhD, a senior consultant at Animal Health Economics and the former dean of the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine. In Part One, NEWStat outlined the coming shortage of veterinarians in the US.

Today we’re looking at what the year 2030 portends for the availability of credentialed veterinary technicians.

The report contends that it would take more than 30 years’ worth of new graduates to meet the 10-year industry need for credentialed veterinary technicians.

While exact figures aren’t available, Lloyd worked with data obtained from the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) that allowed him to estimate that approximately 118,000 full-time equivalent (FTE) veterinary techs were working in companion animal (CA) practices in the US in 2019.  

The same data from the AVMA showed that there were 59,000 FTE veterinarians in CA practice.

That means there were approximately 2 techs for every veterinarian in exclusive or predominant CA practice.

 But are those techs credentialed?

Some of them are. It’s hard to say exactly how many.

According to the AVMA, the ratio of non-credentialed to credentialed vet techs was about 2:1, which (following Lloyd’s math) suggests that about 79,000 of those estimated 118,000 vet techs—or 67%--were not credentialed.

Lloyd says that while it’s unlikely many of those non-credentialed techs had much formal training related to veterinary technology, they probably did have informal, on-the-job training—possibly supplemented with ongoing continuing education courses and were given the title of veterinary technician based on their assigned roles and responsibilities.

But he said it’s also likely that many of those non-credentialed techs may have completed part of an accredited veterinary technician program but were unable to finish due to time or other constraints.

He  notes some may have completed the requisite courses but work in one of the 11 states that don’t currently require that vet techs be credentialed and so haven’t pursued it.

“Without question, many non-credentialed individuals working with the title veterinary technician are extremely capable and perform well at their assigned roles,” Lloyd writes. “It is fair to assume that one of the primary reasons for [the high proportion of non-credentialed vet techs] is due to a key shortage of credentialed [vet techs] in the labor market.”

Lloyd says anecdotal evidence suggests that many practices would prefer to hire credentialed techs, but it’s simply not an option due to limited availability.

Quibbling over exact numbers—and the reason for them—aside, Lloyd writes that it’s safe to say that “There exists an effective shortage of thousands of credentialed [vet techs] in the US today.”

What to do about it

It might seem counterintuitive given the shortage of vet techs, but Lloyd says one goal should be increasing the techs-to-vet ratio.

According to research presented at the 2019 AVMA summit productivity in CA practice maximized at a tech-to-vet ratio of 4:1. Given the current ratio of 2:1, that would require doubling the number of credentialed vet techs in the US. Even assuming a more conservative ratio of 3:1, it would still mean an increase of around 59,000 credentialed vet techs.

Possible solutions include:

  • Increasing the number of accredited vet tech programs and/or an increase in enrollment in existing programs.
  • Fully engaging the skills and competencies of vet techs currently working in practice (practices on average use only around 30% of their tech’s available skills and competencies, by some estimates).
  • Expanded use of Veterinary Technician Specialists (VTSs).
  • Establishing master’s degree-level advanced training in veterinary clinical care.

When you combine the projected growth in spending on pet healthcare, the goal of a 3:1 tech-to-vet ratio, and anticipated vet tech attrition through retirement—not to mention the separate issue of burnout—an estimated 132,885 additional credentialed vet techs will be needed by 2030, a number Lloyd calls “astounding.”

That’s eight years away.

We can meet these challenges, but as Lloyd writes, “It’s time to get started.”

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