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Veterinarians overwhelmed by need for emergency care

Deficiencies put huge burden on small practices in Ely, Cook

Jodi Summit
Posted 9/29/21

REGIONAL- There is a yelp, then a cry, then a panicked dog running back toward you with a nose full of porcupine quills. In most cases, this means a trip to the vet, and if it’s the weekend, it …

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Veterinarians overwhelmed by need for emergency care

Deficiencies put huge burden on small practices in Ely, Cook

Posted

REGIONAL- There is a yelp, then a cry, then a panicked dog running back toward you with a nose full of porcupine quills. In most cases, this means a trip to the vet, and if it’s the weekend, it means an emergency trip to the vet.
And if you are lucky enough to live in the Ely area, a call to the Ely Vet Clinic will often set you up with an appointment relatively quickly, with a vet always on call.
But for many pet owners in northeastern Minnesota, this isn’t the case.
Most Iron Range-area veterinarians have stopped taking after-hours and weekend calls. Instead, they are referring clients to the emergency veterinary service, BluePearl Pet Hospital, in Duluth.
“After-hours vet care is in a crisis,” said Chip Hanson, who operates the Ely Vet Clinic. “Due to an overall shortage of vets on the Iron Range many nights only the Ely Vet Clinic and Blue Pearl in Duluth are available for after-hours emergencies, and many times the Duluth clinic has been overwhelmed as well and has had to refer cases to the Twin Cities.”
John Fisher, from the Vermilion Veterinary Clinic in Cook, agrees.
“I do after-hour calls almost every weekend,” he said, “I did one emergency call last weekend.”
But Fisher said his clinic doesn’t always have a veterinarian on call, and in that case, they have to refer clients to Duluth.
Fisher said, in his experience, people calling after hours often just need advice, and the visit can wait until Mondays.
“But then we are just swamped on Mondays,” Fisher said.
While vets are typically highly motivated to help animals, balancing that desire with the physical and mental limits of such a high demand for care can be overwhelming.
“We have been getting crushed with emergencies in the last two years and the majority of those emergencies are not our clients,” Hanson said. “Handling emergencies for people and their pets can be very rewarding, and we all enjoy the actual work, but the number of hours and dedication it requires makes it hard to maintain a good work/life balance.”
Fisher said they are also seeing a lot of out-of-town calls from as far away as International Falls and Hibbing.
Hibbing recently lost a practicing vet, Fisher said, and Hanson said one of the vet clinics in Virginia recently had a vet who retired, leaving a single vet to run the business.
Veterinarians across the state have been seeing increased caseloads, and many have stopped taking new clients. This is an issue facing the vet clinic in Ely.
“We haven’t been able to accept new clients for a year,” Hanson said.
Fisher said they have accepted a lot of new clients, but they are now finding it increasingly difficult to take time off from the job.
One of the veterinary services in Virginia advertises their “new client wait list” on their website and directs people to BluePearl in Duluth for urgent or emergency care.
And due to a staffing shortage, BluePearl, which used to provide care five weekday evenings and both days on the weekends, is now closed on Tuesdays.
“On Tuesday nights,” Hanson said, “It’s us or Minneapolis.”
“I have a crazy-dedicated crew,” Hanson said. “In the last two years we have struggled to find time to sit down for a moment or eat lunch.  At times it is overwhelming.”
The five full-time veterinarians in Ely often work two hours after closing to keep patient records up-to-date. This is in addition to putting in their share of after-hours and weekend on-call hours.
Each vet takes a week as the “on-call vet,” Hanson said, and because this now means they are often working late into the night, that vet is only on part-time during the day during that week, which has put added pressure onto the other working vets.
And keeping up with the emergency call volume, which has averaged 25 to 30 visits a week this past summer, is tough on the staff, according to Hanson.
Fisher said all the vets in the area are short-staffed right now, and their workload has been increasing. His office has two full-time vets, along with his wife Robin, who works part-time as a vet and the rest of the time managing their practice.
“Practice volume is the busiest we have ever been,” he said.
Getting a call through to a local vet clinic during regular business hours is often a challenge, especially on a Monday. This reporter had to call multiple times to get a call through to Cook, getting busy signals four times before getting through a few minutes after their regular closing time.

Expansion isn’t the answer
Expansion is not an easy option either. “Our building doesn’t lend itself to an easy expansion, and building an entire new facility is just very hard to make financially feasible,” Hanson said.  “Even with very low interest loans it is hard to see how you maintain decent salaries and pay the mortgage.”
“And if the money could be found, then we would have to address the issue of actually being able to attract new talent to staff the facility.  All of the vet clinics on the Range have struggled over the last decade to attract veterinarians and trained vet tech talent. I, as a business owner, have been very lucky in that regard and have managed to find incredible people to work at the Ely Vet Clinic,” Hanson added.
The shortage of emergency veterinary care also is also felt in the Twin Cities metro area.
Martin Moen, from the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Minnesota said they have been seeing multiple days of closures and long waits for appointments also.
“It is very stressful for owners who are watching their pets suffer and there is nowhere to take them,” he said. “In our case, the issues are primarily driven by a shortage of veterinary technicians. I think we currently have 18-20 open technician positions in our hospitals, which really limits the number of patients we can see in a day.”
“The vet tech training program in Ely is highly valued,” he said, “but the need is huge.”

Rural vet shortage
A shortage of small animal veterinarians, especially in outstate Minnesota, is a problem the University of Minnesota Veterinary School is working to solve. The problem is particularly acute in areas with a strong farm economy.
The USDA has identified 35 Minnesota counties where there is a shortage of veterinarians who can care for farm animals. But there are fewer programs available that target the shortage of small animal veterinarians who are needed in northeastern Minnesota.
There are 32 schools in North America that train veterinarians, including the University of Minnesota. Admission into the program is highly competitive, with the U of M averaging nine applicants for each of the available 100 spots in the school. The university also has a new program with South Dakota State University, serving approximately 20 students, where students start their education at the campus in Brookings, S.D., and complete their third year of instruction and clinical rotations (fourth year) in St. Paul.
Of all the students who applied to veterinary schools the previous year, over 80 percent were between 19 and 24 years of age, and almost 85 percent of the applicants were female.
The U of M program consists of six semesters of classroom and laboratory instruction, with a focus on hands-on learning, followed by three semesters of clinical training where students choose from as many as 60 two-week rotations in the Veterinary Medical Center at the U of M, and at off-site clinical partners.
“The goal is to attract more students who want to practice in rural areas,” said the U of M’s Moen.
The tuition cost of a four-year veterinary degree is $131,400 for in-state students, Moen said. “Last year we provided over $600,000 in scholarships, and many students received additional competitively-awarded scholarships given by industry and the MN Veterinary Medical Foundation.”
There are also loan repayment programs for students who practice at least half-time on farm animals.

Vet Tech program at Vermilion
A shortage of veterinary technicians is being address locally by a two-year degree program at Vermilion Community College. The five-semester-long program includes a mix of basic science and practical hands-on courses.
“Enrollment in the program has been good,” said Veterinarian Peter Hughes who oversees the program at VCC. “But we did not hit our cap of 24 students this year; we had 20 on opening day.”
“Job placement has been good,” he said. “I think everyone who graduates and wants to be working in the field is working in the field.”

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