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Study reveals concern about future of veterinary profession

Only 41% of veterinarians overall would recommend the profession to a friend or family member.

Merck Animal Health (known as MSD Animal Health outside the U.S. and Canada) announced the results of a large, well-controlled study with veterinarians designed to definitively quantify the prevalence of mental illness and stress in the veterinary profession and compare the findings to previous studies and the general U.S. population.

Conducted in collaboration with the American Veterinary Medical Assn. (AVMA) and Merck Animal Health, the study found that veterinarians ages 45 and younger are more likely to experience serious psychological distress, and only 27% said they would endorse the profession to a friend or family member, the announcement said.

“This survey is unique in that, for the first time, a nationally representative sample of veterinarians in the U.S. were asked about their well-being, which is a broader measure of happiness and life satisfaction than mental health alone,” said study investigator Dr. Linda Lord, academic and allied industry liaison lead at Merck Animal Health. “Based on the survey results, we are particularly concerned about younger veterinarians as they are the future of our profession. We must work together to promote a healthy lifestyle, including work/life balance, access to wellness resources and debt reduction.”

According to the Merck Animal Health "Veterinary Wellbeing Study," about one in 20 veterinarians is suffering from serious psychological distress, which is in line with the general population. However, when segmenting the data by age, younger veterinarians are more affected by the financial and emotional stresses of professional veterinary life compared to both older male veterinarians and individuals in the general population. Depression (94%), burnout (88%) and anxiety (83%) are the most frequently reported conditions affecting mental health.

Overstressed, undervalued

Among younger veterinarians, high student debt was the top concern voiced, with 67% rating it as a critically important issue, the study found. In 2017, according to AVMA, the average veterinary student graduated with more than $138,000 in student debt, which is nearly twice the average starting salary for a veterinarian, creating a significant strain on the future of the profession.

Following student debt, respondents listed other serious issues facing young professionals today as stress levels, reported by 53%, and suicides rates, reported by 52%. Poor mental health is closely associated with the stresses of professional life, such as excessive work hours, a poor work/life balance and student debt.

Only half of veterinarians with serious psychological distress are seeking help, which creates a big mental health treatment gap, the announcement said. This is compounded by the fact that few employers offer employee assistance programs. In addition, only 16% of veterinarians had ever accessed resources regarding well-being and mental health through national or state veterinary organizations.

“Veterinarians today cope with a physically and emotionally demanding occupation that is undergoing changes from increased competition to the declining ability of clients to pay for veterinary care. Moreover, veterinarians often find themselves giving up the things that improve well-being and provide a healthy balance in life, such as family, friends and time for self-care,” said Jen Brandt, AVMA director of well-being and diversity initiatives. “As an organization that serves veterinarians, our mission is to protect the health and welfare of our members and the future of the profession. As part of these efforts, we continuously work to identify accessible resources and assistance related to well-being and mental health. Studies such as the animal health 'Veterinary Wellbeing Study' provide helpful guidance on the types of resources and education that may be most beneficial.”

Career choice

The survey showed that veterinarians today do not strongly endorse their profession. Only 41% of veterinarians overall would recommend the profession to a friend or family member; even large numbers of those who score high in well-being and mental health do not recommend the profession. For those 34 years old and younger, the endorsement rate drops to 24%, while 62% of veterinarians age 65 and older would recommend the profession.

“Merck Animal Health is proud to partner with AVMA to conduct this important study to better understand the challenges facing the veterinary profession,” said Scott Bormann, vice president, U.S. commercial operations, Merck Animal Health. “We are committed to working with AVMA and others to support veterinarians by raising awareness and offering assistance and resources, including close to $3 million in scholarships over the last three years, and will continue to look for ways to positively impact the well-being of practicing veterinarians and enrich the possibilities for the future of this profession.”

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