Veterinarians in country areas

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veterinarians in country areas
Photo: Mark Wilson – 123RF

The rush of people fleeing the big cities for a new life in regional and rural areas throughout 2020 has proven a blessing and curse for veterinarians in country areas. By John Burfitt

It’s the trend that’s attracted attention throughout this past year—the considerable shift in population from metro capitals to regional and rural centres as a result of the COVID-19 upheaval. According to a Regional Australia Institute report, more than 400,000 people moved from the capital cities to regional areas in the five years to 2016, and through 2020, that pace increased. Australian Bureau of Statistics data reveals Melbourne lost over 10,000 people to other areas of Victoria in the first half of the year, while Sydney lost around 14,000 who relocated to different parts of NSW.

That trend has proven something of a blessing and a curse for regional and rural veterinary professionals. On one hand, increasing populations along with increasing pet ownership has resulted in robust business with a big demand for local vet services. But like so many other places in Australia, there’s a shortage of qualified practitioners to do the work.

“There is definitely an influx of people into the country area where we are, but from what I can see, none of them are vets, and we wish they were,” Dr Anthony Bennett, of the Berry Veterinary Clinic two hours south of Sydney, says. 

“Business is booming with a significant upturn in caseload and turnover, and while that’s great, the other side of that story is we have had a vacancy for a vet for months and have not had one application.

“Such is the client demand, we’re also planning to open a new clinic at Shell Cove south of Wollongong, and that will require two additional vets. We just hope we will have a team in place by then.”

As rare as unicorns

The Lincoln Institute Veterinary Shortage survey found nearly 90 per cent of veterinary business owners reported unprecedented difficulty filling vacancies in recent years. Of those, 41 per cent waited longer than six months to find new vets for their clinics.

In regional and rural areas, it can be even longer, claims Dr Gary Turnbull, one of the architects of the Lincoln Institute survey.

“Right now, we appear to be in a worse situation than before, because whilst we’re busier than ever with new people moving into the area, many practices in this region have inadequate numbers of veterinarians to be able to meet the needs of their clientele,” Dr Turnbull, director of the East Port Veterinary Hospital in Port Macquarie on the Mid North Coast of NSW, says.

“This is happening all over. I was recently talking to a colleague in rural Victoria and another in Queensland and they’re telling the same story. Often when we’re recruiting, all we see is new graduates. A senior vet has become like a unicorn in our profession these days.”

Which for a seasoned vet can mean they’re more valuable than ever, with a wealth of opportunities on offer, especially if they decide to follow the trend to get out of the big smoke and go regional.

If you’re an experienced veterinarian, there is an absolute smorgasbord of good options available if you want to move out of a metropolitan market and into a regional centre. 

Dr Gary Turnbull, director, East Port Veterinary Hospital

“If you’re an experienced veterinarian, there is an absolute smorgasbord of good options available if you want to move out of a metropolitan market and into a regional centre,” Dr Turnbull adds.

Out of your comfort zone

Choosing a change of landscape, aside from the many lifestyle benefits it can afford, can also offer critical challenges to the skill set of a well-established vet.

“Some vets who do this find it can be very professionally challenging, and that is a good thing at any point of your career,” Dr Anthony Bennet says. “It might mean you have to change your approach, going from dealing with small house pets you’re used to in the city to being out on a farm doing large animal work from time to time. 

“That might require going back to the books and asking a lot of questions, but being out of your comfort zone for a while can end up making you a far more skilled vet in the long run than if you had stayed put where you were.”

According to a range of veterinary clinics and recruitment sources, it is predominately new graduates who are the main candidates for jobs in regional and rural locations. The scope of such a varied caseload of work—from family pets to working farm animals to wildlife—can add real value in terms of skills-training for a long-term veterinary career.

But any tree change or sea change needs to be approached with considered caution, not just for the sake of one’s career but also because it tends to come with a big change to lifestyle. A major issue that often emerges is the demands of after-hours work.

Factors to consider

“That’s the one thing that absolutely stands out in terms of why going into rural work does not suit everyone,” Dr Gary Turnbull says. “Being on call and being expected to do after-hours work can prove to be a deal-breaker, but it is a needed service and is an essential part of the job.”

One smart approach before deciding to make a move is to possibly spend some weeks working as a locum at the new location. And before embarking on an all-new enterprise by opening a new practice, it could make more sense to join an existing practice to learn the lay of the land.

“If things don’t work out how you hoped, it is far easier to extricate yourself than if you have gone to all the effort of opening a whole new practice,” Dr Bennet says.

He adds there’s a philosophy he shares with anyone who asks for advice about packing up and moving their career to the country. “I always say, ‘Come for the job, but stay for the area and lifestyle’,” he says. “I understand some people are risk adverse in these times of uncertainty, but the people I know who have done the big change find they are better off in so many ways, and usually wonder why they didn’t make the move earlier.”

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