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Rural training program in Kansas shines light on veterinarian shortage

rural veterinarian shortage solutions
Posted at 11:10 AM, Apr 08, 2022
and last updated 2022-04-08 11:10:51-04

BELOIT, Kan. — The United States has a growing shortage of veterinarians, especially in the most rural communities. The problem is predicted to get worse if we don’t catch up with the need.

The bond between human and animal is a special one. It’s why we want our animals to receive the best care.

Dr. Anna Hickert, otherwise known as Dr. Red works at Solomon Valley Veterinary Hospital in Beloit, Kansas.

It's a rural community, about a two-hour drive from Manhattan, Kansas in one direction and about a two-hour drive to Wichita in another direction.

“My entire life goal for the first 25 years of my life was to become a veterinarian. Become a veterinarian," Dr. Red said.

Some say the community of Beloit is lucky to have this clinic because, like many rural communities across the country, it’s the only option for miles.

“We have people that make 40, 50 hour-and-a-half minute drives just to come and see us," Dr. Red said.

She didn’t land here by accident.

“I knew from the get-go that where I wanted to end up long term was in a rural practice, in rural America, basically giving back and serving the people that got me to where I am today," Dr. Red said.

She’s just one person who's gone through Kansas State University’s Veterinary training program for rural Kansas.

“This program is quintessential to finding people that have the drive and have the desire and giving them the financial resources to come and plant roots in a rural area and start to grow and become a part of the community," Dr. Red said.

Here is how the program works. Participants receive $20,000 annually to support tuition for four years.

Once they earn their degree, each student is required to work at a full-time veterinary practice in a Kansas county with fewer than 35,000 residents.

For each year they work in rural Kansas, $20,000 of their loan is forgiven. 

Dr. Brad White, a professor with the university, points out that while the program has been active for 15 years, the state is now discussing growing it.

“This program is funded by the state of Kansas and the state of Kansas provides funding that goes to those students for a scholarship as they go through school," White said. “The legislature has recently considered expanding the program and making it applicable to potentially a broader area or a greater number of students as they go through the program.”

Due to its success, White feels on a larger scale, it could really help fix the shortage of veterinarians throughout the country.

“Over 90% of those graduates are still practicing in the rural community. Almost 80% of them are still practicing in the same practice they started in after leaving vet school," White said. “But it’s not just Kansas. There are large parts of the US that we see some of the same needs present.”

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics states we already have a veterinarian shortage in the range of 3,000 to 5,000 and veterinary jobs are expected to grow 17% by 2030. Not only is Rachel Miner a student in the program, but this second-generation veterinarian has also experienced this shortage firsthand.

“The rural community, it means more to me," Miner said. “The summer before I started vet school, so this would have been June of 2019, my dad was injured in a very serious accident so he was unable to practice at our clinic. And he is the only practitioner at our clinic. We potentially could have lost our business and everyone in the community stood by us and vets from the area came and they worked for free to keep our clinic afloat.”

Like Dr. Red, without their clinics, lives would be lost.

“There’s not a hospital where they can go and check in and start the primary care. We are the doctor and the nurse in this situation,' Miner said.

Whether it’s for a family pet or livestock in the agriculture industry, these veterinarians and technicians are the backbones of these rural communities.

“That’s how you keep these rural communities strong, that’s how you keep them alive and growing," Dr. Red said.