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West Virginia legislative committee learns of shortage of registered veterinary technicians

By Autumn Shelton, West Virginia Press Association

CHARLESTON, W.Va. – There is a shortage of registered veterinary technicians in West Virginia.

To help remedy this problem, representatives from West Virginia University (WVU) and West Virginia State University (WVSU) appeared before the Legislative Interim Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development on Sunday to discuss what they believe is the best solution for increasing the numbers of those employed in this field. 

According to Dr. Matthew Wilson; associate dean for research, associate director of the Agriculture and Forestry Experiment Station and professor of Reproductive Physiology at WVU, a registered veterinary technician serves in a role that is much like a nurse in a “human hospital.” 

“They can do a lot of the aspects of veterinary medicine,” Wilson said. “They work in concert with a veterinarian to help amplify the activities of that professional.”

A registered veterinary technician performs work just like a licensed veterinarian except they cannot diagnose disease, perform surgery, prescribe medication or prognose medical outcomes, he continued. However, there are only 235 registered veterinary technicians to help the state’s 704 licensed veterinarians. 

“There is clearly a need,” Wilson stated, adding that the average national salary for a registered veterinary technician is $36,000. But, West Virginia does not have any bachelor’s level programs to train future registered veterinary technicians. 

Both WVU and WVSU have most of the curriculum in place to offer a veterinary technician bachelor’s degree with accreditation by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), Wilson explained. This is because accreditation is based on competency not courses. 

“There are a couple of competencies that we don’t meet,” he continued. “There are a couple of courses that we need to develop, but we are ready to develop those in partnership with West Virginia State University and the Department of Agriculture to meet those needs.”

He estimated that funding a full bachelor’s degree program to meet all AVMA requirements would cost just under $1 million the first year (including speciality lab creation), and about $571,560 each subsequent year to maintain the program. Funding would be distributed among WVU, WVSU and the WV Department of Agriculture. 

In response to a question from Senator Mark Maynard, R-Wayne, about current licensing requirements and education for veterinary technicians, Wilson responded that there are three state-wide associate’s degree level programs that “meet the competency requirements to sit for the exam.” Those are located at Pierpont Community and Technical College in Fairmont, the Carver Career and Technical Education Center in Charleston and Mountwest Community and Technical College in Huntington. However, only about 18-22 students graduate each year from all those programs combined. 

Dr. Jean Meade, owner of Cheat Lake Animal Hospital in Morgantown and adjunct professor in the WVU Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design, stated that she experiences the shortage of licensed veterinary technicians on a daily basis. 

“We, like many other hospitals, are suffering from a lack of strong veterinary technologists. It’s one of the things that slows the pace in the hospital.” 

Through her work at WVU, she explained that she is also an advocate for students. 

“We have about 90 students that enter every year, aspiring to go to veterinary school. Of those, only about 20 wind up matriculating into veterinary school,” Meade said. “So, you’ve got 70 bright, highly motivated students who want to work in the field, but don’t have the credentials to do so.” 

A lot of those students who graduate with a four-year degree will then enter a 2-year associate’s degree program to become a licensed veterinary technician, she continued. 

“We have the capacity within our land-grant universities here to prepare our students as they go through pre-veterinary programs, or even pre-medical programs or other aspects of the schools, to get their credentials while they are in their traditional programs to sit for licensure for veterinary technology,” Meade said. “Coming out of school with the credentials to sit for the national boards in veterinary technology would help the veterinary profession.” 

Joe Hatton, deputy commissioner of the West Virginia Department of Agriculture, added that as a regulatory agency, they employ veterinary technicians to look for signs of animal disease at county fairs and at the State Fair of West Virginia as well as for meat and poultry inspections.

“We regularly need inspectors for various aspects of food safety,” Hatton said. 

Ami Smith, vice-president for Agricultural Research and Extension at WVSU, said that there is a “critical need” for veterinary care. 

“My university has been working with WVU and the Department of Agriculture to determine how we can address this need for the state,” Smith said. “We believe our two land-grant universities are well positioned to bring this program online–not only to address this critical need in veterinary care, but to provide educational and career opportunities for the students of West Virginia.” 

Although university representatives did not ask for funding for the possible bachelor’s degree program, Meade stated that any funding from the state would be welcome.

“I’m from the private sector. So, I feel like I can say it straight up. As a practicing veterinarian in dire need of technologists–yes, I am here asking for your financial support to give the veterinarians in this state the support we need to provide the care we need for the public.” 

At the conclusion of the meeting, it was suggested to presenters that they discuss matters with the Special Committee on Viability of WV Veterinary Medicine School–Higher Education chaired by Senator Ryan Weld, R-Brooke. 

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