Students the Business: How Do We Help Future Veterinarians Succeed Financially?
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,
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."
in the Core: What Do Students Want?
The American Veterinary
Medical Association (AVMA) accreditation guidelines for veterinary schools
|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
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 surveyed62 percentfelt 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