116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Iowa veterinarians in specialty, emergency practices ‘particularly challenged’
Facilities cutting back on hours as staffing shortage looms
CEDAR RAPIDS — The Iowa Humane Alliance started 2022 with three veterinarians. But by that February, it was down to only one.
A year later, the alliance still is hiring — offering a signing bonus and some loan repayment as incentives, executive director Stacy Dykema said.
Dykema said the community’s need for pet surgeries is very much there.
“We just did a huge capital campaign … and we're all set to do 15,000 surgeries a year, except we don't have enough veterinarians,” Dykema said.
The Cedar Rapids organization opened in 2013 as Iowa’s first nonprofit, high-quality, low-cost spay and neuter clinic operating on a daily basis. Last year, just over 11,000 surgeries were completed.
The shortage of veterinarians is being felt across the industry, but some clinics — such as specialty and emergency practices — “have been particularly challenged,” said Dr. Lori Teller, president of the American Veterinary Medical Association.
Some of the challenges of hiring, Dykema said, are this is a specialized field and can be repetitive. “It takes a lot of stamina to be able to do surgery that long, so I think it takes a pretty specific individual that has that drive and stamina and dedication to the mission,” Dykema said.
The demand for veterinary services in Iowa — and across the country — grew during the pandemic as adoptions and the pet population increased. This demand has outpaced the number of graduating veterinarians, causing strain on a system that was already facing shortages pre-pandemic, various experts told The Gazette.
‘I feel like we might be starting over’
Hiring even one additional veterinarian would help take some of the stress and pressure off of Dr. Jennifer Doll, who right now is the only veterinarian on the alliance’s staff, Dykema said.
“If she's not here, we can't do surgery,” Dykema said, adding how this puts additional pressure on Doll when she needs a sick or personal day because the surgeries still need to be done when she comes back.
“ … She does have thoughts of retiring at the end of this year, so that could really impact the community if we weren't available to do surgery.”
Dykema worries the progress and impact made over the last decade would be gone, and local shelters and rescue partners would be overwhelmed with animals.
“It doesn't take animals that long to reproduce, and I feel like we might be starting over,” Dykema said. “It would feel like we've made no headway at all.”
Iowa City hospital shifts model of care
Bright Eyes Bushy Tails in Iowa City last year shifted its model of care from being a 24/7 facility to more of a daytime practice, hospital manager Jessica Martens said. Bright Eyes Bushy Tails still sees emergency and urgent care cases but during open business hours, which now includes the weekends.
Martens, who has managed the practice for 13 years, said this shift was a “very difficult decision to make” but was needed after the challenges of the pandemic.
“We were extremely busy, just like the veterinary community throughout the nation experienced,” Martens said. “The trickle effect of it was extreme fatigue and compassion fatigue and burnout.”
The hospital currently has five veterinarians on staff and still is hiring. A part-time veterinarian will be added in the late spring, Martens said.
The shift has allowed veterinarians to have work-life balance and feel good about the quality of medicine they’re doing, Martens said. She has “never seen our doctors as happy.”
“They're getting to breathe a little bit,” Martens said. “I don't want the community to suffer, but I feel like it's more important right now to have longevity in this business than to just Band Aid it.”
Martens said the hospital wants to provide more hours to the community, but will be doing this cautiously.
“I can't tell you for certain if we will ever go back to a 24-hour model, but we certainly know that there is community needs for emergency care and very limited resources,” Martens said. “We're slowly trying to provide the best that we can for the community.”
Need for emergency care
Critter Crusaders focuses on advanced medical and surgical care for sick or injured pets that Iowa rescues and shelters contact them about. Last year, the nonprofit had 756 appointments, diagnostics and surgeries.
The organization has seen an increased demand for services and longer wait times to get appointments for the animals, said Jan Erceg, medical coordinator with Critter Crusaders.
Emergency clinics are doing what they can, Erceg said, but it’s been challenging with such a high need, especially on days when BluePearl closes its emergency room due to staffing challenges. In Cedar Rapids, BluePearl Pet Hospital sends local providers a list every month of when its emergency room will be closed — typically seven days out of the month.
“We’ve been trying to sound the alarm on this problem,” Erceg said.
Erceg shared a situation a few months ago where two pet patients were hospitalized at BluePearl in Cedar Rapids. But since the hospital was going to be closed overnight, the pets needed to be transported to another 24/7 facility. That meant driving the pets to BluePearl in Des Moines.
"Can we get our pets seen for emergency care? Can we get them into specialty services? And if we can't, then what do we do and where do we go? That's what's happening in this area,“ Erceg said.
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