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Vet tech program aims to combat staff shortages in growing industry

Through a collaborative effort between West Virginia University, West Virginia State University (WVSU) and the West Virginia Department of Agriculture (WVDA), a new program — VetStart West Virginia — will offer the state’s first four-year veterinary technology program in hopes of combatting a severe shortage of veterinarian technicians and veterinarians in the state for both small and large animal medicine.

Guidance from the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) suggests to be most efficient there should be four vet techs for every veterinarian in a clinic.   

“In the state of West Virginia today, we’ve got one registered technician for every three licensed veterinarians – the ratio is the wrong direction,” said Matthew Wilson, professor of animal sciences at WVU.  “And in large animal medicine that’s one technician for every nine veterinarians in the state of West Virginia.”

West Virginia Commissioner of Agriculture Kent Leonhardt said that with the increase of people getting pets during the pandemic, many dual practice vets quit doing large animals because they were so overwhelmed with small animals. 

Program organizers plan to have a food animal focus due to recent increased growth in agriculture and lack of large animal veterinarian services.

While nationally cattle numbers were down 3%, West Virginia cattle numbers were up 5,000 head last year, according to Leonhardt, who added that red meat production in the state is up over 50% since he was elected to his office in 2016.

Wilson also predicts future changes to distribution of pharmaceuticals to agricultural producers that will require more veterinary oversight.

“Then when you add the addition of Mountain Top Beverage coming to West Virginia in Morgantown and the potential for increased dairy industry, it just accentuates the need for large animal veterinarians and veterinary technicians in West Virginia,” Leonhardt said.

Wilson said they have submitted the initial application to the AVMA for accreditation of the VetStart program, which will be a joint accreditation between WVU and WVSU for a single program.  They received a private donation that allowed them to establish the program and hire the initial director, Dr. Madonna Higgins, but there are other needs.

“Now we are in the process of starting to build out the curriculum, getting a couple of courses that we didn’t have in place and looking for the resources to hire the rest of the people needed,” Wilson said.  “West Virginia State needs a veterinarian to teach some of the course content they don’t yet have on the books and both places will need to have a veterinary technologist on staff as well because that is an AVMA requirement.”

According to Wilson, the way AVMA evaluates a program is by a list of competencies, not specific course names, that would cover things like biology or physiology.

“The reality is that both institutions – both West Virginia University and West Virginia State University – had probably about 90% of the competencies that were required by the American Veterinary Medical Association already in place,” he said.

WVSU President Ericke Cage said data shows that less than 20% of students who enter college hoping to go to vet school are successful.

And according to Wilson, a lot of students who don’t get into a veterinary medicine school are left without many options because they have a four-year degree that wasn’t in conjunction with a veterinary technology program.

“What this vet tech program does,” Cage said, “is it gives those students another opportunity, kind of a second bite of the apple, to really get into a space which they have a passion for.”

There are currently several two-year veterinary technician programs in the state, Wilson said, noting that those with two-year degrees are more than capable of working at a clinic, but there are situations where having a four-year degree and the technologist credential is helpful.

“As an example, the West Virginia Department of Agriculture in their animal health division, they have a requirement for a bachelor’s degree, so a person with an associate degree, even though they are a registered veterinary technician, they’re not eligible for that position,” Wilson explained.

Both two- and four-year students must take a national exam called the Veterinary Technician National Exam, he said.  Those who pass the test with a two-year degree are called technicians, those who pass the test with a four-year degree are considered technologists.

VetStart plans to create a hands-on, immersive experience at both WVU and WVSU that will leave graduates career ready and ready to contribute to the mission.  They have a goal of expanding that hands-on experience to the two-year institutions as well.

“We want to sort of lift all boats in the state, very intentionally,” Wilson said, “and we also want to develop articulation with those two-year institutions, because a portion of their students, once they get done with those two years, may be interested in continuing on and getting a four-year degree so they can do things that a person with a two-year degree can’t.”

Dr. Keith Berkeley, equine and large animal vet who will serve as a VetStart advisory board member, said he heard concerns that people thought the four-year program over-lapped with the other programs in the state.

“I think it’s a complement to those – to take some of those young people one step further and I don’t see any downside,” Berkeley said.  “It certainly deserves a good start to see how it pans out.”

Berkeley said with the shortage of people participating in the animal industry as veterinary technicians, and the shortage of veterinarians – especially large animal vets – the program will give students exposure to the other areas that they can make a productive living in and be happy. 

“I think with the shortage of the workforce this is a critical time to provide young people with another option,” he said.

Potential job opportunities for vet techs seem to be expanding as the veterinary field begins aligning more with common practices in human clinics.

Wilson said we can expect to see physician assistant type roles like in human medicine and when that becomes more common, the four-year program will be poised to train those individuals as well.

“With a vet tech program like we are talking about and the discussions we’ve had with the Board of Veterinary Medicine on how we can transform telemedicine into the veterinary world, we’ll be able to take care of the needs of our farmers in West Virginia a lot better,” Leonhardt said.

With no new programs, the estimation is that it would take 30 years of training technicians at the current national capacity to meet the next 10 years of demand.

It was proposed in the past to open a school for veterinary medicine in the state – the two closest schools are Ohio State University and Virginia Tech – however, Wilson, Leonhardt and Cage all said studies showed it would cost upwards of $321 million to start the school – assuming they could recruit enough qualified staff.

“For one one-hundredth of that amount we can start a vet tech program, which will help to augment the capacity,” Cage said.

“To increase the number of actual veterinarians, we need to do a better job of getting our students, not only into the veterinary schools that do exist, but then get them to come back to West Virginia,” Leonhardt said. 

Cage said that by leveraging the expertise of the two institutions, whether it be faculty or research, and also leveraging the expertise of the WVDA, they will hopefully be able to bring online a program that will produce a durable pipeline of veterinary technicians who can help reinforce the work that veterinarians are already doing in the state for a fraction of the cost of what it would take to stand up a new school of veterinary medicine.

Wilson said it could take up to two years to get through the application process and have a site visit from the AVMA for program accreditation.

“That said we expect that students that enroll in the fall of next year could graduate with the credentials to sit for the exam,” he said.

“What the VetStart program does is it pulls together the resources of the state’s two land-grant institutions, and as land-grant institutions, we have a responsibility that expands beyond our campus, really it expands to all 55 counties of West Virginia,” Cage said.  “And certainly, as land-grant institutions, agriculture, animal sciences, those things, are really a part of the work that we do.

“Higher education, as we all know, is rapidly transforming to meet the demands of today’s workforce,” he continued, “and I think this is one very clear example of what the state’s land-grant institutions are seeking to do – we see an existing need in the work force, we’re transforming and building programs that will help to meet those needs.”

Cheat Lake Animal Hospital also felt and saw the need for vet techs statewide and will also lend its assistance by partnering with WVU on the program.  Owners Dr. Jean Meade and Dr. Jesse Fallon, who will also serve on the VetStart advisory board, said their practice employs a great technical staff, but there’s just not enough qualified vet techs available to fill the demand and they believe that to be the case at veterinary clinics statewide.

“Our team members really are dedicated and are working overtime to help meet the needs of our clients, but it’s often at the expense of their family time and sometimes even their health,” they said.  “We just decided we wanted to be part of the solution statewide and we are really excited to partner with the university to make this happen.”

Leonhardt said securing continued funding for the program is a top priority in moving forward.

“We have our own animal health staff that will be able to be involved in some of the lessons that are being taught.  We currently do it at the two-year vet tech programs and this looks like we can expand it to help everybody,” he said.  “So, the funding that we are asking for will not only benefit WVU and West Virginia State University, our two land-grants, but will also help the other vet tech programs that are already established.”

Leonhardt said he believes the program could eventually be a model for other states to emulate and encourages those in support of the program to contact their legislators to let them know you are behind the program.

“This is a win for everybody in the state and to include multiple of our institutions of higher education, which, as we know, we need to do in this state,” he said.  “So, it’s a great win for everybody and it’s all a part of the Department of Agriculture’s program to try to shorten that distance between where our food is produced and where it’s consumed.”