Chris Richards of Apiam Animal Health is tackling the rural and regional vet shortage head on with an organisation-wide approach to recruiting and developing young vets—and using technology to ease the after-hours burden on high-workload vets. By Shane Conroy
The vet shortage is continuing to bite regional and rural areas as the agriculture industry expands and COVID-19 drives an increase in companion animal ownership. According to the Australian Veterinary Association, at least 800 vets are urgently needed to fill the shortfall across the country.
Stress and challenging working conditions are also putting established vet clinics under pressure, with as many as one in three vets considering leaving clinical practice within the next 12 months.
That paints a concerning picture. But it’s a problem that Dr Chris Richards, managing director at Apiam Animal Health, is firmly focused on.
“There’s certainly a severe vet shortage in regional Australia,” he says. “That’s because production animal numbers have increased since the drought broke, and we’re also seeing an increase in companion animal ownership in regional Australia.”
Apiam Animal Health was founded in part to address the rural vet shortage. After graduating from Melbourne University, Dr Richards spent 20 years building a Bendigo-based intensive animal practice. He expanded the business with clinics in Toowoomba and Perth, and built a nation-wide reputation as a veterinary leader in the pig industry.
However, after fielding acquisition interest from other large independent rural clinics, Dr Richards set the business on a new path.
“We saw an opportunity to come together as one business under the Apiam Animal Health banner,” he says. “We knew we’d have a far better chance of addressing a lot of the challenges that were happening in rural veterinary practice together. It would also enable us to invest in the systems we needed, and address some of the issues around recruitment, retention, and professional development of regional vets.”
Today, Apiam Animal Health is Australia’s largest regional and rural veterinary network. The Australian-owned company incorporates more than 38 veterinary clinics and 56 locations across the pig, dairy, feedlot, sheep, poultry, equine and companion animal sectors.
The vertically-integrated company also spans veterinary wholesale, diagnostic laboratories, custom vaccines, and logistics businesses, and is supported by an experienced administration, nursing, technical and ancillary services team.
A clear development pathway
Easing the rural and regional vet shortage is a core mission at Apiam Animal Health. The first step in the company’s strategy, explains Dr Richards, is building the capacity to recruit and develop vets across a large network of both general practices and those that provide expert services at a species level.
“When a new graduate comes into our structured graduate program, they receive mentoring, technical and leadership skills development and may work across a number of our clinics to get a good grounding across all species,” he says. “Then they have the opportunity to develop their skills further in whatever discipline they want to develop further.”
This sets out a clear development pathway for young vets keen to build skills beyond the routine duties they are often restricted to in city practices.
“Coming into rural practice, you get the opportunity to do everything,” Dr Richards explains. “In the city, you might be doing routine veterinary care and routine surgery, but in a rural practice you get the opportunity to learn and undertake all levels of medicine and surgery.”
At Apiam Animal Health, there’s also the opportunity for vets to pursue a leadership role in the company’s management team.
“We have a leadership program that prepares our vets for leadership roles within the company, whether that’s as a clinical lead or a management role,” says Dr Richards. “We’re a vertically integrated business so there’s opportunities to work in our genetics business, in our vaccine production business, in research, or in our logistics business. We really offer opportunities for veterinarians across all levels of the industry.”
While that’s certainly an incentive for young vets to head out to the country, Dr Richards says it can’t solve the rural vet shortage alone.
“The vet shortage is a real issue, and as much as vet clinics do need to adapt in how they provide services to best utilise the vets that are available, as an industry we also need to make sure that enough vets are graduating from vet schools with competency in production animals.
“Probably one of the largest challenges for the rural veterinary sector is to ensure the vet schools are providing enough focus on production animal medicine, to ensure that the basic skill sets are provided to enhance a successful career in rural practice.”
Preventing vet burnout
Solving the vet shortage isn’t just about attracting young vets to rural and regional areas. It’s also about retaining existing country vets, and better utilising practising vets to prevent shortages in at-threat areas.
“We operate our clinics on a regional basis, which means we have the ability for vets to move to other clinics or regions when shortages occur, or when workloads increase in a certain area,” says Dr Richards. “We’re also starting to utilise nurses and technicians to provide some of the services that were traditionally undertaken by vets. This is enabling our vets to spend more quality time on high-skilled tasks.”
Apiam Animal Health is also using technology to help ease the burden on overworked country vets and keep them in the industry.
“Earlier this year we launched our after-hours vet triage service,” Dr Richards explains. “All after-hours calls are now taken by a triage service that is operated by experienced veterinary nurses. That has resulted in a more than 50 per cent reduction in the number of calls that need to be referred to a vet after hours. This helps to improve the work-life balance of our vets and enables them to better cope with increased workloads through the shortage.”
Independent rural vets may also have the opportunity to sell their practice to Apiam Animal Health and get extra back-end support while retaining an ownership stake.
“When a vet sells their practice to us, in nearly all cases they take equity within Apiam as part of the sale process, so they continue to be an owner of the business,” says Dr Richards. “We have a number of clinics we’ve acquired where the owners have been in their early 40s and seen an opportunity where they really want to further develop their veterinary skills and the services they are providing to clients, rather than running a day-to-day veterinary business.”
Futureproofing the industry
Dr Richards says collaboration between vet clinics in the Apiam Animal Health network has been vital to pulling the company through COVID-19. The pandemic has also helped to accelerate the development of some of the technologies Dr Richards believes will become increasingly vital in coming years.
“Rural vets are quite familiar with viral pandemics in production animals, so we already had the skills and the knowledge to be able to implement effective biosecurity and hygiene systems. But there’s no doubt that the level of communication and collaboration between all our vets and support staff has increased across the company since COVID-19.
“There will certainly be more reliance on remote technologies to assess animals, and we’re investing in the continued development of data and analysis systems. For example, we’ve just launched a new software program called Data Pig that remotely monitors clinical disease events and response to treatments of animals on farms, as well as tracking antimicrobial use to enhance antimicrobial stewardship. That’s going to be a big focus for production animal medicine over the next 10 years.”
Dr Richards also believes that many technologies used in human healthcare will become more affordable for the veterinary industry.
“For example, we’re now implementing our second CT machine, and I would expect that other technologies such as MRI and gene therapy will become more affordable to the veterinary industry. The ability to assess animals remotely through wearable devices and artificial intelligence is also developing rapidly in production animals.
“If the vet shortage is to continue, we need to be sure we have access to these technologies.”