Demand for veterinary care has spiked in recent years, because of increased pet ownership and deeper human-pet bonds. Specialty care demand also has sharply increased, because younger generations want the same care level for their pets as their human family members. The JAVMA published a pre-pandemic article detailing a veterinary specialist supply problem, and we can assume the need is greater now. 

Obtaining specialty care has never been easy for pet owners. Barriers to care, including cost, distance, time constraints, difficulty scheduling appointments, and long wait times, discourage owners from pursuing a specialist consultation, and the relative shortage of providers has not made this easier. VESPECON is working to reduce all these barriers and improve pet owner access to advanced care. To better understand our goals for the future of veterinary specialty care, we’re sharing the industry’s past history and the present.

Veterinary specialty medicine: The past

When the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) was founded in 1863—as the USVMA at the time—most veterinary work focused on horses and livestock, and few veterinarians became members. Since that time, the profession has gone through many metamorphoses, welcoming minorities, becoming woman-dominated, shifting from large animal to majority companion animal practice, and adding offshoot career paths in industry, shelter medicine, wildlife, public health, government, non-profits, and academia. 

Salaries began to significantly increase in the 1950s, and more veterinarians, who mostly practiced alone and worked 60- to 70-hour weeks, could finally support themselves with veterinary work alone. This fact still haunts our profession, although we’ve made great strides in recent years toward a better mental health and work-life balance.

The first veterinary specialties—pathology and preventive care—were approved in 1951. More specialties were steadily added over the years, and the AVMA now recognizes more than 40. In 1967, specialists numbered only 369, which ballooned to around 13,000 by 2018.

Veterinary specialty medicine: The present

Most specialists in the 1980s practiced in academia and research, but most current veterinary specialists are employed in private or corporate practice. Pet owner demand for state-of-the-art care is skyrocketing as the trend toward pets as family members marches on. A survey of millennial pet owners showed the close bond this generation has with their pets when most admitted they’d be far more stressed by separation from their pet than their cell phone.

But, keeping up with the skyrocketing demand has been difficult. Becoming a veterinary specialist takes a minimum of seven post-baccalaureate education years, and requires deep dedication and a high debt-load tolerance. Yet, specialty interest has grown and residency training programs are overloaded with applications, with the result that many students are turned away from their desired career path. In 2018, only 31% of 1,100 residency applicants matched, leaving the rest to take internships or re-evaluate their goals. Residents who graduate have their choice of available jobs, because there aren’t enough specialists to meet growing demands. 

Veterinary specialty medicine: The future

The future of veterinary specialty medicine will focus on improving access to care by leveraging technology and facilitating veterinarian specialization. Educational institutions and individual specialty colleges are creating more residencies with digitization and some curriculum simplification, and re-evaluating salaries and benefits to attract and retain specialists in teaching institutions. This strategy may take time to develop, but leveraging technology now can effectively bridge the gap and offer specialty care to more pet owners.

VESPECON offers an innovative telemedicine platform to connect primary veterinarians with consulting specialists and in-person referral facilities. Referring veterinarians who deal with complex cases need specialist input, and they can contact our concierge team on-demand to match with a virtual consulting specialist. Our specialists can evaluate pets via video chat, help the referring veterinarian choose and evaluate diagnostics, and develop a long-term treatment game plan.

When the need for in-person specialty care arises, VESPECON team members reach out and coordinate a visit with a specialist in our provider network. When you join as a specialist network provider, we can fill your appointment book with pre-screened, worked-up, ready-to-go cases you will look forward to seeing. We’ll also facilitate records transfers, so your staff can better prepare for the day ahead.

VESPECON is working to make specialty care more accessible for clients, patients, and referring veterinarians. To learn more about VESPECON’s services, and how we’re driving veterinary specialty care forward, contact our team or sign up on our website.