GAO Report Warns of Shortage of Veterinarians

US - The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has put out a statement highlighting the growing national shortage of veterinarians.
calendar icon 24 February 2009
clock icon 3 minute read

Veterinarians are essential for controlling zoonotic diseases - which spread between animals and humans - such as avian influenza. Most federal veterinarians work in the Departments of Agriculture (USDA), Defense (DOD), and Health and Human Services (HHS). However, there is a growing national shortage of veterinarians.

GAO determined the extent to which:

  1. the federal government has assessed the sufficiency of its veterinarian work force for routine activities
  2. the federal government has identified the veterinarian work force needed during a catastrophic event, and
  3. federal and state agencies encountered veterinarian work force challenges during four recent zoonotic outbreaks.

GAO surveyed 24 federal entities about their veterinarian work force; analyzed agency work force, pandemic, and other plans; and interviewed federal and state officials that responded to four recent zoonotic outbreaks.

The federal government lacks a comprehensive understanding of the sufficiency of its veterinarian work force. More specifically, four of five component agencies GAO reviewed have assessed the sufficiency of their veterinarian work force to perform routine activities and have identified current or future concerns. This includes USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services (APHIS), Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) and Agricultural Research Service (ARS); and DOD's Army. Current and future shortages, as well as noncompetitive salaries, were among the concerns identified by these agencies.

HHS's Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not perform such assessments and did not identify any concerns. In addition, at the department level, USDA and HHS have not assessed their veterinarian work forces across their component agencies, but DOD has a process for doing so. Moreover, there is no government-wide effort to search for shared solutions, even though 16 of the 24 federal entities that employ veterinarians raised concerns about the sufficiency of this work force.

Further exacerbating these concerns is the number of veterinarians eligible to retire in the near future. GAO's analysis revealed that 27 per cent of the veterinarians at APHIS, FSIS, ARS, Army and FDA will be eligible to retire within three years.

Efforts to identify the veterinarian work force needed for a catastrophic event are insufficient. Specifically, agencies' plans lack important elements necessary for continuing essential veterinarian functions during a pandemic, such as identifying which functions must be performed on-site and how they will be carried out if absenteeism reaches 40 per cent – the rate predicted at the height of the pandemic and used for planning purposes.

In addition, one federal effort to prepare for the intentional introduction of a foreign animal disease is based on the unrealistic assumption that all affected animals will be slaughtered, as the United States has done for smaller outbreaks, making the resulting veterinarian work force estimates irrelevant.

A second effort lacks crucial data, including data on how the disease would spread in wildlife. If wildlife became infected, as they have in the past, response would be greatly complicated and could require more veterinarians and different expertise. Officials from federal and state agencies involved in four recent zoonotic disease outbreaks commonly cited insufficient veterinarian capacity as a work force challenge. However, 10 of the 17 agencies that GAO interviewed have not assessed their own veterinarian work force's response to individual outbreaks and are thus missing opportunities to improve future responses. Moreover, none of the entities GAO reviewed has looked across outbreaks to identify common work force challenges and possible solutions.

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