For as long as she can remember, Dr Cyrena Hull wanted to be a veterinarian – she remembers how as a child she pretended to hook up her stuffed animals to makeshift IVs.
Hull began working at Perry Veterinary Hospital in Perry, Oklahoma, straight out of vet school six years ago. She’s one of two doctors who work at the small-town clinic, and her experiences growing up in rural Colorado make working in the city feel like home.
“I love the job. I love what I do,” Hull said. “It’s really pretty crazy to see the debt load it takes to get there.”
Hull currently has over $100,000 in medical school student loan debt.
According to United States Department of Agriculture. According to American Veterinary Medical Association.
Low salaries are a major disincentive for graduates deciding where to practice, said Dr. Daniel Grooms, dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine at Iowa State University.
“There are financial barriers to entry into rural practice,” Grooms said. “Generally, rural practices have lower salaries than practices in more populated areas.”
In 2019, Grooms and two students surveyed students and veterinary clinics in Iowa to understand why there is a shortage of veterinarians in rural parts of the state. In addition to low wages, they found that long hours and a potential lack of mentorship also contributed to the shortage.
“The ability to have balance in your life in a rural practice can be challenging,” Grooms said, “especially if it’s a one- or two-person practice versus a larger practice with several doctors and lots of help.”
The debt problem
Since 2010, the USDA has offered the Veterinary Medical Loan Repayment Program, a loan repayment program to help rural veterinarians. It identifies rural areas with a shortage of veterinarians and reimburses certain student loans for veterinarians who are accepted into the program and settle there. These vets can get up to $75,000 over three years.
But the amount awarded is less than half the current average loan debt for graduate vets. American veterinarians are graduating from medical school with nearly $200,000 in debt, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association. Dr Robert Smith, who oversees the loan repayment program, said there was talk of increasing the amount they distribute.
“We see [debt] numbers for individuals up to half a million dollars,” Smith said. “I mean, it really makes you cringe and wonder how they’re ever going to pay that back.”
Still, even if more money becomes available, earning the cashback reward isn’t easy. That’s partly because the program only assigns one vet per designated area of need, and the application process can be daunting.
Just over half of the 144 vets who applied for the program last year received the award. Eligible veterinarians must complete and submit seven different shapes in addition to a resume, a copy of unofficial transcripts and loan documents. For busy vets like Hull, the app can be daunting.
“There are a lot of hoops to jump through,” she said. “I’m not sure it’s worth the time it takes away from my family or my clients, which is already hard to find there.”
Although the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture hosts informative webinars about the application process for the program, Smith said that’s something he hopes the program can. to improve.
“Practitioners aren’t used to writing grants,” Smith said. “It’s a nut that we’re going to try to crack and provide some sort of coaching or mentoring – to work with them to come up with a better bid.”
Currently, veterinarians who receive debt repayment rewards are also taxed on this money, although the USDA covers the cost. This is something that vet advocates are trying to change.
“Being taxed at 39% means less goes to people who want to go to these [shortage] fields and practices of food animal medicine,” said Dr. Jose Arce, president of the American Veterinary Medical Association.
The organization tried to get rid of the program’s tax clause by lobbying Congress to pass the An Act to improve the veterinary loan repayment program.
Vital for rural communities
Access to good veterinary care is essential for farmers and ranchers who own livestock. Losing an animal is not only a significant financial loss, but it is also a waste of time and labor invested in raising the animal.
“The job of the veterinarian is to work in partnership with the cattleman to make sure the animals are healthy,” said Dr. Brad White, director of the Beef Cattle Institute at Dusk State University. Kansas. “That’s because we need to be sure to protect that food supply and make sure it’s healthy and as productive as possible.”
Kansas State University has worked to place its veterinary graduates in less populated areas of the state since 2006 with its Veterinary Training Program for Rural Kansas. The publicly funded program gives five students a year a $20,000 loan for their tuition. After graduation, veterinarians who work in a Kansas town of less than 35,000 people for four years can get up to $80,000 in forgiven loans.
“Over the past 15 years of this program, we know that about 90 percent of those students are still in rural practice,” White said. “About 80% of them are still in the practice they started in.”
White said implementing a similar program at other veterinary schools could be a potential solution to addressing the shortage of rural veterinarians across the country.
But the Grooms of Iowa State Veterinary School said attracting new vets to rural clinics goes beyond posting a job offer — it starts with establishing a mentorship with students at the start of their career.
“You’re going to have to be creative in how you recruit,” Grooms said. “You’re going to have to invite people into your practice. You are going to have to come and meet them at their veterinary school and attend some of the networking events.
Hull said the mentorship her boss and practice owner, Dr. Martin Roth, has given her is invaluable.
“I think having a mentor from the community is helpful in gaining that trust a little bit faster, compared to if I was trying to do it myself,” she said, “and that community has been tremendous.”
And in the end, Hull said, it’s “simply the community” that keeps her in this small-town veterinary practice.
Xcaret Nuñez covers agriculture, food systems and rural issues for KOSU and Harvest Public Media and is a member of the Report For America corps. Follow Xcaret on Twitter @Xcaret_News.
This story was produced in partnership with Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues. Follow Harvest on Twitter: @HarvestPM