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Veterinarian shortage, lack of after-hours clinic in northern BC putting pets at risk

B.C. plans to double number seats for subsidized students at Saskatoon college but it's not enough to meet demand; doctors feeling the strain
Veterinarian Ben Bauman of Bauman Veterinary Clinic
Prince George veterinarian Ben Bauman treats one of his canine clients at Bauman Veterinary Clinic at 1741 Victoria St.

Pet owners, farmers, ranchers and animal rescue groups are feeling the pinch of a provincewide shortage of veterinary services and the problem is expected to worsen in northern B.C. because Prince George lacks a 24-hour, 365-day-per-year emergency call facility to deal with after-hours animal medical situations.

Overworked vets are struggling to keep up to patient demand and the city has lost close to 25 per cent of its animal doctors just in the past year.

Ben Bauman set up his Victoria Street practice, Birchwood Veterinary Clinic, about a year-and-a-half ago and he is its only veterinarian, sharing the patient workload with three veterinary technicians. Trying to balance his work demands with his home life as the father of three young children, he’s feeling the strain from being understaffed.

“I don’t know how to fix it, I’ve been in it for 12 years now and it’s been getting progressively worse the entire time I’ve been a member of the profession,” said the 41-year-old Bauman. “The fix for us in Prince George is an emergency facility, but you need probably six doctors and 12 technicians for a 365-day-a-year, 24-hour a day (clinic) and we can’t even find one to work for us.

”People are leaving Prince George because of that situation. The new grads don’t want to do after-hours service. There’s not an easy solution because you can’t just go and get more people. You can’t offer them more money to get them here because they don’t want to work without a facility. ”

in the absence of an after-hours veterinary medical centre similar to facilities run by corporate entities in Kelowna, Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton, the number of veterinarians now serving the city, including part-timers, has dropped to about 15. To meet demand for on-call services after hours, Prince George vets are having to take turns responding to calls. For pet owners who are already clients at a certain practice, after-hours services are available. But for patients without an association with a local veterinary clinic, their options are limited.

“People have a misconception; they think there’s people at our clinics 24 hours a day but there’s no one here,” Bauman said. “You hospitalize patients and they sit in kennels by themselves overnight. If it’s too critical, there’s always euthanasia, or you take them in your car and go to Kelowna and hope they don’t pass on the way. It’s bad.”

At Birchwood, similar to other clinics in the city, appointments are booked months ahead of time and no new patients are being accepted until the existing list of appointments are seen to.  

“For pet owners, I can image how frustrating it is, so we always recommend if there is a waitlist to get themselves on the waitlist because that way we can actually draw from names if we’re ready to open,” said Birchwood manager Mel Bauman. “We’re a one-doctor practice and we’re closed to (new) clients because we’re just trying to catch up to everybody.

“We opened up last year with 650 on our waitlist. We need a facility and we need more vets. All of these people are in this position because they love animals and we want them to stay healthy so they can continue to practice. They’re all working so hard and so may extra hours, they’re just getting tired.”

Dr. Bauman said he’s developed chronic gut pain, which he attributes to the stress of running his clinic.

The five other local clinics that share on-call veterinary duties with Birchwood - College Heights Veterinary Clinic, Hart Family  Veterinary Clinic, Murdoch Veterinary Clinic, Ospika Animal Hospital, and Prince George Veterinary Hospital – formed an association known as the Prince George Veterinary After-Hours Care Group. They highlighted their concerns about not having after-hours emergency centre in a presentation last week at the Prince George Chamber of Commerce annual general meeting.

In April the province announced it was providing $10.7 million to double the number of subsidized seats for students in the Western College for Veterinary Medicine in Saskatoon from 20 to 40. A 2019 labour market survey conducted by the government’s advanced education, skills and training ministry projected there will be annual shortage of 100 veterinarians across the province to keep up with population growth and replace vets who have retired or have left their practices due to burnout.

Saskatoon, where Bauman completed vet school, is the only regional college serving Western Canada and the shortage of seats in its program led to Alberta opening its own veterinary college in 2018 at the University of Calgary, which only accepts Alberta residents. The U of C program churns out 50 graduates each year and that’s expected to double to 100 over the next three years with additional funding to expand the program announced last month by the Alberta government. In Canada, the only other veterinary schools are in Guelph, Quebec City and Charlottetown, P.E.I., and they also accept only regional students for subsidized entry into the program.

The vet shortage is especially being felt in more remote and sparsely-populated regions of the province. Prince Rupert, the biggest city in northwestern B.C., with a population of about 12,000 people, has no full-time veterinarian and is served only by locums who come for short stints from other cities to see patients. Bauman, who graduated from Saskatoon in 2010, was a locum for 3 ½ years before he set up his practice.

Melanie Bauman said the federal government could help alleviate the shortage by making it easier for veterinarians from other countries to come to Canada to set up practices. Foreign doctors are required to re-write and pass their competency exams before they are issued licenses.  She said the shortage of technicians, who perform critical nursing duties to assist doctors in animal clinics, is also hindering existing practices across the country.

“The government has guaranteed two years of more seats (the next two academic years), which is great, but it would be nice to have some sort of draw to bring them to the north,” said Mel Bauman. “When we’re asking new grads to come to the north, they’re going to have to do (on-call after-hours shifts) and work 36 hours in a row. Or you can move to the south and not have to do that.

“The veterinary shortage is Canadian problem. If you look at other provinces, it’s all difficult for them, and Alberta actually recognized that by opening a school.”

 An animal health technology program exists at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops but she said the demand for their services vastly outstrips the number of annual graduates. Having a similar technology program at the College of New Caledonia or UNBC might help retain students in the north but it would take years to have an effect on boosting the numbers of trained professional staff.  

The vet shortage also extends to the farming and ranching communities in the region, which are served by only a handful of mobile doctors.

“Farm animals don’t have veterinarians up north anymore,” said Ben Bauman. “Dr. (Jodi) Green does the best she can and Westwinds (Mobile Veterinary Clinic) is traveling all over northern B.C. trying to help. In Vanderhoof, there’s one person (at Nechako Valley Animal Health Services) now because the vet clinic closed. She does horses but I don’t know if she does cows.”

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