A Wagga-based veterinary science expert has given an impassioned plea to the state government to increase funding for rural vets.
Speaking to a NSW parliamentary inquiry examining the veterinary workforce shortage, Charles Sturt University's associate head of vet science Geoff Dutton said vets were leaving the industry in droves.
"A large percentage of vets are leaving rural areas. This has a compound effort that exacerbated the shortages," Dr Dutton said on Wednesday.
"There needs to be concessions for vets in rural or regional Australia ... one way to do that would be for DPI to offer scholarships that require people to work for two to three years in rural or regional practice.
"I invite the committee and any other people concerned to come to Wagga to see how a rural veterinary school works."
A statewide shortage of veterinarians has prompted the inquiry to examine the reasons people are leaving the industry.
The NSW upper house committee for regions launched the probe in response to reports of burnout driving people to seek employment that offers higher pay and less stress.
This has created a vicious cycle, where practising vets are left with more work, contributing to more burnout and the subsequent loss of workers.
The inquiry received 209 submissions from vets across the state, many of them suggesting the industry is in crisis.
Wagga-based vet Sarah Pollard-Williams' submission to the inquiry suggested some people are looking for solutions in the wrong place.
She said regulations and strict educational requirements were not contributing factors to the workforce shortage, but the sense vets feel unappreciated was contributing to them leaving the industry.
"The term work-ready graduate is absolutely ridiculous. All new employees in any field need mentoring and support. This may be absent in regional clinics," Dr Pollard-Williams wrote.
"The poor distribution of vets in general practice means those in regional areas often carry an excessive burden of on-call and after hours work.
"The overall profitability of traditional veterinary practices is low, and though a corporate model helps in metropolitan areas, these are generally not available in regional areas. Many traditional practice owners made money by a huge increase in land and building value, rather than profitable clinics.
"Animal owners have absolutely no idea of the cost of providing a veterinary service. They are shielded from medical costs by Medicare ... this leads to bad debts in vet clinics, or emotional blackmail by clients. The 'discussion' over fees is a daily reality for most vets, and something they generally did not sign up for."
In regional areas, this has impacts far beyond the health of pets.
In the regions, a shortage of regional vets has the potential to threaten the livelihood of farmers without access to necessary services for their herds.
Riverina-based member of the NSW Legislative Council Wes Fang said this highlights the need to consider flexible working arrangements and finding ways of attracting more vets to the bush as students and graduates.
"We know there's a lucrative market for veterinarians in metropolitan areas for small animals where people are prepared to pay big dollars to care for their pets," he said.
"The concern is those people who work in rural and regional areas are forced to do these long hours, and be on call all the time.
"We need to acknowledge they want to have work-life balance and we need to support them in that so we can attract them to rural and regional communities."
While this has become a live issue in the past 12 months, NSW has been down this road before.
The Frawley Review of Veterinary Services was commissioned in 2003 to address similar issues to the current inquiry.
News reports at the time covered the increasing numbers of female vet students, the importance of rural vets and the additional burdens they faced, and the interconnectedness of vet practice and agriculture, local amenities and lifestyle factors.
One positive outcome was the establishment of CSU vet school to train vets closer to where they were needed for agricultural purposes, but many of the gains made have been lost.
While some relocate to the city after graduating, many remain in the regions. The problem remains overwork, underpay, and a lack of part-time or casual positions available for people who want to have families.
Speaking to The Daily Advertiser after addressing the inquiry, Dr Dutton said when he started in the industry, he was told most of his colleagues would last five years practising in the bush. Now, the average is about two years before people leave the industry entirely.
"The Frawley report in 2003 basically said there's a dearth of rural veterinarians - how can we fix it? At that time, CSU said we could start a vet school, and hopefully help," he said.
"For a period of time, we closed that gap and things weren't too bad. Then more recently, we began seeing loss of vets from the industry.
"So we've got females having families and things like that and want to come back part-time ... they can't come back because they don't have childcare."
Dr Dutton said the loss of vets to other industries needed to be slowed immediately, but that alone would not be enough to reverse the damage done over 20 years of inaction.
Dr Dutton argues along with many of his colleges the government needs to step in to fill the gaps between private practices if the vet shortage is going to be addressed in a sustainable way.
"We've got to have a paradigm shift in the way we think about these things, and what we do about them," he said.
"It's all intertwined - you can't just say it's the small animals, you have to look at the whole thing. The rural industries are feeding us all ... this is where governments can step in with departmental veterinarians.
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