Long-standing shortage creates strain on rural Alberta veterinarians

Click to play video: '‘It’s not a big draw’: veterinarian shortage impacting rural practice'
‘It’s not a big draw’: veterinarian shortage impacting rural practice
WATCH: A longstanding shortage of veterinarians is getting to a “boiling point,” according to industry professionals. Jessie Weisner reports. – Jun 15, 2021

A decades-long shortage of veterinarians in Alberta has industry professionals and stakeholders calling for support.

According to rural veterinarian Dr. Pat Burrage, it’s not a new problem, but it is approaching a tipping point.

“Well, it’s interesting because when I graduated 30 years ago, they talked back then about a veterinary shortage. It’s been on the radar for some time, but in probably the last 10 years, we’ve recognized there’s a significant increase in demand for veterinary service and not enough veterinarians,” he said.

Burrage has operated practices out of southern and central Alberta, primarily focused on livestock.

He hoped to retire two years ago to focus on his family farm, but demand from the industry pulled him back.

“When I was asked to be involved, I readily accepted. It’s something that once it’s in your blood, you sort of can’t leave it alone, but I do know that I can’t contribute the way I used to,” he said.

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He’s been focusing his efforts on mentoring veterinarian students in the University of Calgary program. It’s the only veterinary medicine program in Alberta, and one of five in Canada.

Click to play video: 'University of Calgary Faculty of Veterinary Medicine opens its doors to the public'
University of Calgary Faculty of Veterinary Medicine opens its doors to the public

In past years, only 30 students have been admitted to the four-year program each year, making it incredibly competitive.

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Last September, that number was increased to 50 graduates a year, however, it will take some time to see any impact from the change.

“This year there were over 300 applicants for the 50 seats that we have to fill. So it’s a very competitive pool,” said Dr. Robert McCorkell, interim dean of the faculty of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Calgary.

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“We’re just not making enough. We have a significant increase in demand for veterinary service and it doesn’t matter in what discipline,” said Burrage.

Other issues also contribute to the shortage, such as graduates working shorter, more manageable hours, and increased demand for their expertise in other sectors.

“The profession is branching out all the time in areas of responsibility. We have people working in the environment, dealing with ecosystem issues and animals, wild animals,” said McCorkell.

The shortage has created long wait times in urban and rural practices and could threaten the economic livelihood of Alberta’s beef industry.

“Veterinarians are very involved with food production and also import and export of our agricultural products. In Alberta obviously, we export a lot of our beef, and it’s big to our economy,” Burrage said.

“The concern would be we start running out of veterinarians associated with that import-export process. That would create significant issues for Alberta.”

When it comes to rural practice, it’s a challenge attracting students to the specialty. Barrage says small towns don’t always attract people from larger centres, and often it can tough for spouses to find work.

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Click to play video: 'Veterans in Calgary need extra help to assist other vets'
Veterans in Calgary need extra help to assist other vets

“Everybody’s finding it difficult to retain those professionals in small-town Alberta, the majority of the population originates from urban centers. So there’s that unfamiliarity with rural practice and it’s not a big draw,” said Burrage. “So, we are trying to make it more attractive.”

McCorkell says further increases to U of C class sizes are necessary to satisfy demand, but that will require more provincial funding.

“At the end of the day, if we’re going to increase the number of graduates… that means we’ll need the money to support that. And how are we (to) come by that? Most commonly, that’s through provincial government support,” McCorkell said.

For the time being, Burrage and other veterinary advocates are getting ready to engage government, educational institutions and stakeholders to find long-term solutions to the problem.


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