Suicide in veterinary medicine is a huge problem right now

I am a veterinarian.  More specifically, I am a veterinary specialist, board-certified in emergency and critical care.  I don’t play with puppies and kittens.  I treat the worst of the worst in a specialty hospital setting with a state-of-the-art ER and ICU.  Despite years of education, including veterinary school, internship, fellowship, and residency to obtain this education and specialty board certification, I was not prepared for the emotional toll of becoming a veterinarian.

I recently read an article on KevinMD, “Doctors are killing themselves, and who is taking notice?”  Whether you know this or not, this is not limited to doctors in human medicine.  A quick Google keyword search “veterinarian suicide” will uncover over 1 million hits in less than half a second.

Bluntly, suicide in veterinary medicine is a huge problem right now.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found male veterinarians are 2.1 times as likely and female veterinarians 3.5 times as likely to die by suicide compared with the general population. The much higher rate for women is especially concerning as more than 60 percent of vets are women.

Why?

Debt and financial pressures. New graduates are often more than $150,000 in debt. Unlike other medical fields, the median pay for a veterinarian in the United States is $85,000 a year.    This means while some make more, there are also graduates who make far less.  Even the median salary is less than half of that for physicians and surgeons.  Try to live (rent/mortgage, groceries, car payment, food, health insurance, etc.) with $150,000 in debt with a salary of $60,000/year.

Emotional stress. Unlike human medicine with the security blanket of health insurance, pet insurance is still widely underutilized. It’s also important to recognize that most pet insurance companies reimburse following a claim submission rather than providing the financial resources to pay for the bill at the time of payment.  While a simple check-up may not be a financial risk for families, emergencies carry a financial burden as sick patients may require thousands of dollars of care … out of pocket.  How many times can a pet owner yell at the veterinarian, “You are only in this for the money” as you euthanize their pet due to illness and the required financial commitment before you can no longer ignore these words?

Access. This is two-fold for me.

  • Access to lethal drugs and medications. Veterinarians commonly perform euthanasia procedures and have access to a plethora of widely used medications to assist in humane euthanasia.
  • The second is access to the internet. Not veterinarians, but their clients.  At some point, it is no longer possible to ignore vindictive negative Yelp reviews.  “1 star – Dr. X would not help my dog and was only interested in my money.”  In reality, the pet owner was likely given several treatment options as well as payment options, which were declined.  Why can veterinarians no longer float the “I-O-U” card?  The simple fact is that these hospitals would quickly have a debt load that was too heavy to carry, and they would close.  There is significant overhead operating a veterinary hospital. Like human hospitals, veterinary hospitals have diagnostic equipment that is expensive to purchase and maintain. Radiology, including state-of-the-art digital X-ray and ultrasound, in-house laboratory equipment, anesthetic machines, and monitoring devices, surgical instruments, and physical examination tools, are a few examples.  Veterinary hospitals are also pharmacies that require a significant overhead cost to stock.  Unlike in human medicine, where you are provided a prescription form to take to your nearest pharmacy, most veterinary hospitals carry the financial burden and overhead of stocking and prescribing medications for the convenience of the client as well as prescription and non-prescription pet foods.  Please don’t forget fixed overhead costs, including mortgage/rent, utilities, property taxes, insurance, medical disposal fees, building maintenance.  Lastly – there are salaries!  Veterinary hospitals employ receptionists, veterinary technicians, and veterinarians, as well as a multitude of other personnel cleaning kennels, feeding patients, and building maintenance.

What’s the take-home?  Emotional stress and suicide are truly problems in the medical field.  This is not a MD/DO vs. VMD/DVM (doctor of veterinary medicine) thing.  This is not a human patient vs. a 4-legged patient thing.  This “thing” is about improving our understanding of suicide, mental health, compassion, and support.   Regardless of how you practice and who you practice on, we are in this together.  The debt, the long hours, the stress, the access to lethal drugs — we have to find ways to better support each other, put better safeguards in place, and ultimately decrease the prevalence of suicide in the medical field.

Garret Pachtinger is a veterinarian. 

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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