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Giving Students the Business: How Do We Help Future Veterinarians Succeed Financially?
by Kelly Coleman

The average veterinarian graduating in 2000 started practicing with a salary of $41,000 and a debt of $60,000. Between 1983 and 1995, starting salaries increased by 8.6 percent while loan debt increased by 67 percent, after adjusting for inflation. These numbers show that veterinarians currently have a negative rate of return on their education, according to a member of Brakke Consulting, Inc.

A 1999 study conducted by KPMG Peat Marwick, LLP, on the current and future markets for veterinarians and veterinary medical services in the United States concluded that the discrepancy is an income problem rather than a debt problem. A Brakke study of the good-business practices of veterinarians found that veterinarians need to better apply these practices to maximize their incomes. Owning a clinic may be the best means to achieving a higher income, but veterinarians must first learn to be good managers.
How can veterinary students acquire business knowledge to be successful practitioners?

How can veterinary students acquire business knowledge to meet the increasing need for higher salaries to pay down their debt and to be successful practitioners? And what role should veterinary education play?

In response to these recent studies the College is examining the business skills taught in the existing elective curriculum and exploring the possibility of including business courses in the core curriculum.

Illinois has offered several electives with business as a focus: Agribusiness, taught by Drs. Larry Firkins and Dick Wallace; Client Relations, taught by Dr. Allan Paul; Foundations in Business, taught by Dr. Doug Yanik; and Practice Management, taught by Dr. Gordon Benson. (The Agribusiness course is the direct result of research conducted by 2001 graduate Dr. Sarah Probst, who surveyed food animal producers in the Midwest and learned that they expected veterinary practitioners to serve as business consultants for them. See the sidebar for more about the student perspective on business education in the veterinary curriculum.)

Dr. Christine Merle, who was recently appointed a clinical assistant professor in veterinary clinical medicine, is responsible for incorporating practice management skills into the curriculum. Dr. Merle believes that putting business in the core curriculum would demonstrate the importance of the skills to students. Regardless of their chosen career paths, she says, all veterinarians can benefit from skills in communications, marketing, and accounting. Business skills can also enhance the ability of veterinarians to adapt their knowledge to various roles in medicine, public health, and ecology.

However, Dr. Merle understands the difficulty of cramming business courses into an already intense curriculum. Likewise, meeting the need through elective courses can be problematic because some electives are limited in size and offered only during certain years. They also have to compete with other electives within a student's specialty.

To Dr. Merle, the goal of teaching basic business skills is to equip DVMs with the ability to do such things as check their accountant's work or negotiate a higher starting salary. Dr. Merle thinks that students who have an unrealistic idea of what a veterinarian does may become unhappy once they realize how business is rooted in practice.

Dr. Sharon Davis, a 2001 graduate, finished an MBA at the University in December. With 15 years of business experience under her belt before she came to the College, she readily acknowledges that clinics may lose money and that the practice, employees, and equipment are often not managed properly because veterinarians are untrained in business.

Dr. Davis does not believe there is room in the core DVM curriculum for business courses. She would not want to see another year added to the curriculum. After four years, students are already over-worked, tired, and ready to get out. "There is no reason to make an MBA out of every DVM," she says.

The curriculum committee at the College is currently discussing how business skills could fit into the existing curriculum. Dr. Gerald Pijanowski, associate dean of academic and student affairs, believes that the biggest need is for better interpersonal skills for client relationships. To meet that need, the relatively new course in clinical orientation for first-year students has been expanded from one semester to two beginning this fall.

Another step the College has taken to inject business concepts into veterinary academics was to offer faculty a 12-week course to receive a certificate in business and administration. Last spring about 30 faculty members attended the course, which was paid for by the College and its three departments. Every Thursday night, faculty from the University's College of Commerce and Business Administration lectured on business and management concepts related to the veterinary field.

Dr. Pijanowski also notes that the University Career Center conducts several 2-hour presentations on negotiation skills, contracts, and benefits that have been fairly well attended by fourth-year students. He looks to Dr. Merle, who earned an MBA while practicing in Chicago, to develop elective courses and will see where to go from there.

"It's a work in progress," says Dr. Pijanowski. "Just about every veterinary school is going through the same thing."

Business in the Core: What Do Students Want?
The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) accreditation guidelines for veterinary schools state that

an understanding of professional ethics, communication skills, the delivery of professional services to the public, personal finance, business finance and management skills necessary to prepare the graduate to enter careers in veterinary medicine should be integrated throughout the curriculum.

Fourth-year veterinary student Abby Cowan wonders whether elective classes alone can accomplish these objectives.

This past spring Cowan attended a lecture on job selection, debt management, and employment contracts by Dr. James Wilson, a veterinarian and lawyer. Dr. Wilson claims that students who have attended his lectures make between $3,000 and $5,000 more than their peers during their first year of employment.

Cowan's fascination with Dr. Wilson's advice prompted her to survey Illinois veterinary students to gauge their understanding of and confidence in both personal and business finance. The results, which included responses from students in the first three years of the program, were shared with the dean and the College's Courses and Curriculum Committee.

The survey findings revealed that very few veterinary students were confident in their ability to manage their own personal finances. The majority of students did not feel qualified to buy into a practice some day, nor did they have an understanding of business finance, management skills, or the legal aspects of employment contracts. Students were particularly interested in receiving more information about practice ownership and employee contracts. A majority of the students surveyed—62 percent—felt that business skills should be part of the core curriculum.

Of those who preferred keeping business classes as electives only, most worried about already-full schedules and pointed out that not all veterinary students plan to own a practice. One student offered, "I think these topics are very important but.... [w]e are all adults and should be capable of recognizing our own need to supplement in this area."

A student who favors business topics in the core curriculum said, "I came to vet school fully expecting to be taught about practice/business management." Another thought business was "very boring" but needed.

Perhaps this student summed it up best: "It is very important to have practical business knowledge no matter what industry you are in."—Kelly Coleman

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