Retirements and lack of newly qualified vets leave the profession in crisis

If you want to get an idea of ​​the extent of the longstanding but growing national shortage of veterinarians, the classifieds of the Irish Veterinary Journal is a good starting point.

That’s according to Ian Fleming, a 45-year-old vet, based at Duntahane Veterinary Clinic, Fermoy, Co Cork.

“Every month in this newspaper you will see 60 to 70 ads, looking for vets,” he told the Irish Examiner.

Indeed, this reporter found about 80 classified ads looking for veterinarians when he visited the PLEI website this week.

“I am the case and the point of this issue,” he said. “I have 45 years of practice, including 44 years at Fermoy, so I wanted to take a step back.

“Not completely retiring”, he hastens to add, “but withdrawing from activities outside working hours. I posted an advertisement in June 2021 and received a few responses, but no one suited me.

“It took 15 months to find someone to fill the space, she’s a lovely girl and we’re happy to have her, but it still took 15 months.”

Recruitment and retention crisis

Mr. Fleming is a member of a group of vets who point to the urgent need for new veterinary schools to help deal with a recruitment and retention crisis in the profession.

The country does not have enough veterans and it does not train enough either. This follows a similar pattern to what is happening with GPs, Mr Fleming believes, where the number of qualified people is shrinking as demand soars, while not training enough practitioners.

“It’s the same boat, and the fragility of services is now starting to be exposed, especially in rural areas,” he explains.

And while there are problems across Ireland, it is especially in remote rural areas where there is most concern. Take Listowel for example. There are five vets – one is 80, two are 70 and two are 60.

They can’t bring anyone there. Dunmanway has its problems too, but you don’t have to be in the farthest corners of Cork and Kerry to see problems,”

Mr Fleming added that he had heard of a busy practice in Galway city which was struggling to recruit.

The shortage of veterinarians is not a new problem. Ireland has quietly relied on attracting large numbers of internationally trained vets to fill a gap that has been known and recognized for over a decade.

In 2007 the Competition Authority warned that Ireland should not depend on other countries to train vets for its own needs. Between 2001 and 2007, nearly 40% of new vets registered with the Veterinary Council of Ireland qualified outside the country.

Ian Fleming: “The fragility of services is now starting to be exposed, especially in rural areas. Photo: Denis Minihane

However, since then, this shortfall has worsened. In 2021, 70% of new vets entering the register were trained outside of Ireland, and 45% of those registrations came specifically from overseas vets.

At the same time, the demand for veterinary services shows no signs of stopping. More people than ever are pet owners now after the Covid-19 shutdowns, and the need for vets has also increased across private, corporate and state services.

If left unaddressed, a recruitment crisis in the profession will have serious implications for animal welfare and food production in the country, which will inevitably include the food industry and export trade.

Only one veterinary school

One of the main contributors to the recruitment problems, according to Mr Fleming, is that Ireland currently has only one veterinary school, at University College Dublin (UCD), offering around 80 places a year to students per year. intermediary of the CAO.

Each year, without fail, it is one of the most sought-after college courses in the country. Last year, it drew CAO first-round cut-off points of 601, requiring students to achieve top marks in all subjects and take higher-level mathematics.

There simply aren’t enough spaces to meet the demand. In 2007, UCD trained more than half of new veterinarians to join the registry. In 2021, this figure was 28%, less than a quarter of the annual demand of the last four years.

Mr. Fleming points to another set of problems associated with the high points bar.

The CAO bar is set too high and the teaching model is not suitable for professional practice.

This leads to a “mismatch” that contributes to a high attrition rate in the profession in recent years, he believes. The average time spent in practice is now seven years before leaving the profession.

Shortage of on-farm veterinarians

Those who qualify generally do not wish to specialize in large animals, which also contributes to the shortage of farm vets for rural areas.

In addition to the highlights, studying in Dublin brings another challenge. The cost of accommodation is simply out of reach for many families across the country.

As a result, every year hundreds of students wishing to become vets must study abroad, with the majority heading to Eastern Europe.

One such pupil is Lucy Buckley Keane, who attended Loreto Secondary School in Fermoy. She is currently a student at Wroclaw University of Environmental and Life Sciences in Poland, one of 35 Irish students to form a class of 50. This year is the highest number of students Irish that the college had.

Having grown up with all kinds of animals, she spent her free time riding horses and working in stables and stud farms.

“I wanted to be a vet since I was very young and never wanted to do anything else,” she said.

However, Dublin was out of reach for several reasons: the 600 point requirement; the cost of accommodation in Dublin; and even the cost of living in Ireland.

She will be in Poland for the next five and a half years.

“The fee is around €8,000 a year, which is less than what accommodation in Dublin would cost I think for the year.”

To go abroad

Students have been going abroad for a few years now, she added.

“This situation is not good enough. Ireland has a huge love for its animals and with the Irish farming and equine industry having a sufficient number of vets is vital.”

The Ministry of Higher and Higher Education and the Ministry of Agriculture have confirmed that each ministry is aware of the issues facing the profession.

In October, the Higher Education Authority asked all higher education institutions to register their expressions of interest in establishing a new veterinary school by 18 November.

It is expected that a full RFP will be published by January 16, with a view to opening for the 2024/25 academic year. This news is “very welcome”, Mr Fleming said, adding that there is still much to be done.

Ideally, we need three veterinary schools, but we need the second immediately. One of these schools should be located in Munster.”

In the long term, vets would also like to see a change to the current admissions system to better meet needs across the country. Mr Fleming would like points to be capped at 450, with students having to achieve good grades in Chemistry, Biology and Maths Leaving Cert.

This could then be combined with a ‘portfolio of experiences’, where a student came to demonstrate their love of working with animals, as well as an interview stage to measure a student’s empathy and other tendencies. .

Veterinarians would also like to see a new model of education as well as a focus on research, emphasizing the WHO concept of “One Health, One Wellbeing”.

For Lucy Buckley Keane, capping points and introducing a work experience portfolio would be a welcome change.

Another vet school in Munster would be fantastic and I hope that happens. I only wish it was already there so that I don’t have to leave home and come to Poland to fulfill my dream of becoming DVM.

“It was really really hard to leave home and my family and of course my pets, but unfortunately that was the only option I had, or else give up and that wasn’t an option for me.”

About Hector Hedgepeth

Check Also

Want to be a veterinarian? Here’s what you need to know

This is Science Week, a week-long event held in Ireland every November, celebrating science in …