28 July 2023

Inquiry to probe veterinary workforce shortages, with workers leaving due to stress and abuse

| Keeli Royle
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Dr Luke Michel and his dog at Greencross vets fairy meadow.

Dr Luke Michel welcomed an inquiry to help improve workforce shortages in the industry. Photo: Keeli Royle.

They’re the first stop when our furry family members need help, but an increasing number of veterinarians are dropping out of the profession and staff shortages in the industry are reaching crisis level.

Dr Luke Michel from Illawarra’s branch of the Australian Veterinary Association has been a vet for 20 years and said many practitioners were being driven out of the industry after facing regular abuse and backlash from pet owners.

“When people have big bills and things don’t go well, unfortunately they’re looking for someone to blame,” Dr Michel said. “The abuse that people are copping is a big part of why they’re leaving.”

He said that complaints to the vet board had nearly tripled despite the adverse findings being unchanged.

“There’s still the same amount of mistakes being made, it’s pretty rare that it happens, but people are looking to get vengeance for something that’s just beyond our control.”

READ ALSO Deadly disease spreading among dogs detected in the Illawarra as vets struggle with vaccine shortages

Dr Michel said newly graduated veterinarians were dropping out just years after entering the industry, with the usual stress and pressure of the job exacerbated by an increasing workload, lack of staff and fewer people able to mentor them.

“The last I heard is that almost half the people that are starting out as a vet are then leaving the profession which is pretty sad,” he said.

“A lot of these people are passionate about being a vet and have always wanted to be a vet and then they go through the seven years of uni to become a vet but in the first five years decide it’s not for them.”

On the other end of the workforce, clinics are seeing long-serving employees opt for retirement as the enjoyment in the job slowly diminishes.

And they’re leaving a big gap.

“Some of those older guys that are retiring, to their own detriment, probably didn’t have great boundaries and were doing 60 to 100 hours a week and being on call,” Dr Michel said. “And we’re learning now that’s not sustainable, but it also means that if someone’s not doing that you need two people to fill that position.”

Financial factors have also been identified as a barrier to attracting people to the industry, but Dr Michel said calls to increase pay had been met with some public criticism about motives.

“We come out with a lot of debt and are a lot lower paid than other professions,” he said. “If we were in it for the money, we’d be doing the wrong job.”

READ ALSO Saying goodbye to the love of a lifetime – my dog

The work has also been proven to take an emotional and psychological toll, with studies showing that veterinarians are four times more likely to die from suicide than the average Australian.

A passion for animals has proven not enough to thrive in the position, with vets required to have difficult conversations.

“Vets have a lot of different roles and one of them is almost being a counsellor, we need to talk them through from the start of life to the end of life,” Dr Michel said. “And we could be talking through the end of life and then we have to walk out a minute later and smile for the new puppy that’s coming in so it can be a bit of a roller-coaster.”

Currently in the region there is at least half a dozen practices seeking veterinary staff, with customers shopping around or travelling for appointments.

Dr Michel said the Illawarra workforce was in a better place than 12 months ago, but vacancies were ongoing across the board.

“There are some vets that closed their books down here as well because they just can’t cope with anymore.”

A parliamentary inquiry has been launched to investigate the reasons for shortages in the workforce, including burnout, training and regulatory barriers, with a focus on regional, rural and remote areas of the state.

Hearings will take place on 29 and 30 August.

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