'We're only human': High demand, staffing shortages leading to veterinarian burnout

’We’re only human’: High demand, staffing shortages leading to veterinarian burnout

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MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- Veterinarians across the country are struggling to meet demand.

With more pet adoptions, the need for care has increased since the pandemic, all while the industry is seeing a higher turnover rate. Recent data shows these factors are causing burnout for veterinary teams in a profession that already struggles with mental health management.

Dr. Peter Gaveras has been in veterinary practice for 35 years. He now works at Silver Spring Animal Wellness Center in Milwaukee.

While his team is adapting to the turbulent time, he has certainly noticed the rise in demand, and its emotional impacts.

"People calling, 'can we get in,' and we have just limited amount of time and manpower to take care of them, and all of us as veterinarians are very empathetic, it's hard to say no," Gaveras said.

Gaveras has seen ebbs and flows in the industry for decades, but demand has never been higher. Gaveras said the demand likely correlates with an increase in animal adoptions at the start of the COVID pandemic.

He also believes it has to do with a changing workforce, where older vets are opting to retire, and younger vets are limiting their hours.

"People are more tuned in to work-life balance, which is not 60 or 70 hours a week."

All of these factors have become an endless cycle.

The American Animal Hospital Association found after a year-and-a-half of research, reports of vet burnout have tripled.

"With the increase in demand and the sometimes difficult customers, or difficulty of payment, you just can't do the job you really thought you were built for because things get in the way, and it's a struggle," said AAHA's CEO, Garth Jordan.

Mental health has been a concern in veterinary medicine for years, with statistically higher rates of mental illness and suicide than many other professions.

Dr. Gaveras calls the emotional toll from burnout “compassion fatigue," a feeling similar to what health care workers in the human medical field have been facing.

"We're trying to work with it, but we're only human," Gaveras said, "We're doing the best we can."

In response to mental wellness concerns, AAHA is developing psychological health and safety standards for veterinary practices.

"We hope we'll see traction around that, because this doesn't feel like it's a challenge that's decreasing," Jordan said.

It's a difficult job that needs to be done, and despite these shortages, clinics are overcoming challenges to keep saving lives.

"We've sort of adapted to it. That doesn't mean there are stressors below the surface that people deal with, we all do, but we all try to take care of one another the best we can," Gaveras said.

Dr. Gaveras is hopeful about the introduction of telehealth and other technologies to make veterinary work more efficient.

He also said the University of Wisconsin-Madison's veterinary program has seen enrollment double in the past few years, which could soon yield more people to join the practice in the coming years.

The biggest ask from AAHA and local veterinarians is for clients to be patient and understanding as practices navigate these challenges.

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