Dr Melinda Frye | Dr Noa Roman-Muniz – A Holistic Approach to Advancing the Rural Veterinary Population
Within the agricultural community, there is a great shortage of veterinary professionals. This lack of ‘Food Supply Veterinarians’ (FSVs) creates risk for economic loss, public health concerns, and a decline in animal welfare. Dr Melinda Frye, Dr Noa Roman-Muniz and their colleagues at Colorado State University have developed a program that aims to increase the number of practising FSVs. As part of the program, these highly-trained professionals can more easily integrate into the agricultural community, ultimately enhancing animal welfare, food safety and farm profits.
Why are Numbers Declining?
Animal agriculture has been around for over ten thousand years, resulting in methods that are both efficient and safe. As the global human population continues to rise, the demand for meat, dairy and eggs also increases. For this reason, there is also a growing need for qualified Food Supply Veterinarians (FSVs), who are essential for the production of animal products that are safe, nutritious and ethically derived.
Despite the demand, becoming an FSV appears to be losing its appeal. Though many recognise the beneficial effects of rural living on health and wellbeing, fewer individuals are choosing to serve rural communities due to financial, personal and professional factors.
Though colleges of veterinary medicine continue to recruit and admit livestock-oriented students, once enrolled in the program, individuals often gravitate towards more lucrative and less demanding professional roles. Even for the small number of veterinary students who choose to specialise in livestock, the challenges involved in being an FSV can soon overwhelm recent graduates. The rural lifestyle can lead to professional isolation, and when combined with financial worries, stress and compassion fatigue, can result in burnout and career change.
To address these issues, Dr Melinda Frye at Colorado State University submitted a proposal to the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture Veterinary Services Grant Program (VSGP). The project, entitled ‘A holistic approach to expanding rural veterinary services and improving retention of rural practitioners’, was funded at $240,000 over four years. The work is overseen by Dr Noa Roman-Muniz, VSGP Coordinator, in collaboration with partners within and external to the university. The team takes a holistic approach, combining education, development schemes, and wellbeing tactics. The VSGP not only increases student interest in and preparation for becoming an FSV, but also offers long-term support for veterinary graduates once they have become practitioners of the trade.
Easing Financial Strain
Veterinarians, including those that work with agricultural animals, have a lot of expenses. After spending at least four years pursuing a degree in veterinary medicine in the US, most students graduate with loans averaging $140,000. Practicing veterinary medicine in a rural setting is inherently less efficient, with often long distances between clients and more time devoted to animal movement and restraint. Profitability requires a proactive, strategic and knowledgeable approach.
To tackle this, Dr Frye recruited a financial education specialist and an expert in practice management to mentor students on tactics specific to rural veterinarians. In this aspect of the team’s multifaceted program, budding FSVs develop skills in personal and business financial management, practice management and business planning. A particularly valuable experience is a two-week externship that allows students to receive intensive, broad training in practice management to include finance, cultural awareness, communication and client recruitment and retention. This is followed by an on-site practice assessment using the knowledge gained, and development of recommendations based on findings.
Improving Communication Though Language Training
Another serious problem within the agricultural community in the US is that English-speaking veterinarians often cannot communicate effectively with Spanish-speaking farm workers, putting animal health and welfare at risk. Such poor communication can also increase the risk of injury for farm workers, and the transmission of diseases between humans and animals (called zoonoses).
Therefore, in partnership with the Department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures at Colorado State University, the VSGP includes online and in-person Spanish language training focused on livestock practice. ‘To our knowledge, CSU is the first of its kind to partner with a department of languages to realise a task-based Spanish language program specifically for students pursuing degrees in veterinary medicine,’ says Dr Frye.
Within this scheme, veterinary students and graduates may complete modules in which they are taught Spanish vocabulary and phrases that they are likely to use when communicating with Spanish-speaking farm workers. Topics include worker safety, preventative veterinary care and herd health, which seek to enhance the FSV’s effectiveness, reduce miscommunication and strengthen partnerships.
Although veterinary students have a high course load, 92% stated that it would be feasible to engage with online courses during the semester. Languages must be practised in order to be retained, and the researchers are hopeful that the students will continue to apply and develop their new language skills during their clinical training, externships and working career.
For students, learning through hands-on experiences within an authentic work environment can greatly improve engagement and knowledge retention. Therefore, the VSGP implements a large animal training scheme that may be completed as part of a veterinary degree, allowing students to develop their livestock medicine, herd health and data analytic skills while also becoming integrated into a rural community.
Dr Roman-Muniz has been forming partnerships with numerous practising FSVs and producers, who act as mentors to students during experiential placements for 1st, 2nd and 3rd year students, and externships for 4th year students. Dr Roman-Muniz and Dr Frye aim to secure 20 trusted sites, allowing a greater number of students to benefit from the valuable training experiences and form professional and community relationships.
Travel to remote sites can require a significant financial outlay. To make off-site training more feasible for future FSVs, a fund is now in place to assist with travel, lodging and food expenses associated with these valuable opportunities.
Building Interdisciplinary Bonds
In order to more effectively address the public health responsibilities of the FSV profession, Dr Frye formed a collaboration with the University of Colorado School of Medicine (UCSOM). With a strong rural track program for future physicians and additional programs in allied health, the UCSOM is a natural partner in promoting interdisciplinary collaboration within rural communities. A unique program hosted by the UCSOM is the annual ‘Interdisciplinary Rural Immersion Week’ for medical and other health profession students. This experience allows students to spend a week at a rural location, where they learn about various aspects of personal, professional and community life.
As part of the collaboration, two veterinary students per year now participate in the Interdisciplinary Rural Immersion Week. In addition to gaining invaluable experience in public health within a rural setting, the veterinary students’ involvement in the experience also allows them to foster a sense of community and build professional networks.
‘The partnership with the UCSOM is unique in helping veterinary students to identify commonalities with their allied healthcare professionals, and to appreciate the tremendous benefit of interprofessional collegiality and collaboration,’ says Dr Frye. ‘This is particularly relevant in rural settings, where healthcare providers are few and a single problem in the production environment can cause disease in both animals and humans.’
Dr Frye and her colleagues within the UCSOM have developed interdisciplinary seminars in which veterinary students and medical students share different perspectives on common challenges, enhancing understanding of broad issues in rural health and promoting present and future partnerships.
Making Education Accessible
As mentioned earlier, isolation is a common challenge for rural veterinarians and medical workers alike. Improved access to educational opportunities has been identified as an effective strategy in helping rural FSVs to gain relevant continuing education.
In recognition of this, an aim of the VSGP is to provide practising FSVs with opportunities for further education through online learning activities. These educational modules will focus on topics particularly relevant to rural veterinarians, and allow long-distance acquisition of knowledge and skills to enhance professional expertise, leading to a more highly-trained workforce. Topics include practice management, nutrition, disaster planning and dairy calf management.
Serving as a sole practitioner within a broad region is likely to bring unpredictable working hours and continuous or frequent on-call responsibilities. Compared to veterinarians in larger communities, FSVs may experience isolation from colleagues and mentors. Added to financial worries and the inherent responsibilities of being a healthcare professional, these factors can negatively impact wellbeing. In some cases, this may lead to career changes that take individuals out of the rural setting.
For these reasons, Dr Frye recruited the Colorado State University veterinary student counsellor onto the VSGP team to develop wellbeing programs. These programs educate students about resilience, compassion fatigue, self-care and risk factors for mental health conditions, among other topics. Additionally, future FSVs are introduced to resources that may be accessed once established in a rural community.
Dr Frye and Dr Roman-Muniz have successfully integrated innovative perspectives and resources in realising the aims of the VSGP – a broad and multifaceted solution to a potentially devastating dilemma. With continued program development, the project team aspires to equip FSVs for personal and professional success as they seek rewarding careers in service to rural communities.
Meet the researchers
Dr Noa Roman-Muniz
Colorado State University,
Fort Collins, CO
Dr Noa Roman-Muniz is an Associate Professor in the Department of Animal Sciences and the Extension Dairy Specialist of Colorado State University (CSU). Dr Roman-Muniz completed a pre-veterinary programme at the University of Puerto Rico in 1997, after which she went on to achieve her Doctorate of Veterinary Medicine in 2001 and a Master’s of Science in 2004. She has a keen interest in bridging the gap between human and animal health, particularly in the dairy sector. Her research includes training individuals in how to reduce risk in the workplace. Dr Roman-Muniz also works towards ensuring that workers from underrepresented backgrounds have access to safe working environments.
Dr Melinda Frye is the Associate Dean for Veterinary Academic and Student Affairs at CSU. She began her career as a critical care nurse, which allowed her to gain insight into human health and wellbeing. She then moved into the field of veterinary medicine, achieving her DVM in 1996. After graduating, she worked as a veterinarian in rural Idaho before returning to CSU to complete a residency in large animal medicine. Dr Frye became board certified by the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine in 2001. She completed a PhD in vascular biology in 2005, returning to CSU as an Assistant Professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. In 2014, Dr Frye assumed her current post as Associate Dean, advancing initiatives aimed at student wellbeing, diversity, financial literacy, experiential opportunities, language instruction, and curriculum redesign.
Kayla Andrews, AFC®, ChFC®; DVM Financial Education SpecialistMark Deutchman, MD; Director of the Rural Track, University of Colorado School of MedicineLaurie Fonken, PhD; DVM Student Counselor and Coordinator of DVM Wellness InitiativesStith Keiser; CEO of Blue Heron Consulting Sangeeta Rao, BVSc, MVSc, PhD; Assistant Professor, Department of Clinical SciencesMaura Velazquez-Castillo, PhD; Professor, Department of Languages, Literatures and CulturesShannon Zeller, MA; Instructor, Department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures
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