Veterinary Technicians: So Vital to Good Medicine
“If veterinarians knew what veterinary technicians could do, it would blow their minds.” –Jim Hurrell, DVM
Jim Hurrell, DVM,* director of Penn Foster College’s Veterinary Academy, says he has watched veterinary technicians blossom from the first graduating class of 8 in 1963 (from State University of New York, Delhi) to an animal advocate army comprising tens of thousands, many of them specialists. He shares his insights about this rapidly growing profession and the bright future he envisions.
You have been teaching veterinary technicians for nearly 35 years. What are some of the biggest changes you have witnessed in their profession?
The veterinary profession goes back thousands of years. Veterinary technicians have a baby profession that is still growing and evolving.
During my first summer as a professor, in 1981, I attended the organizational meeting of the National Association of Veterinary Technicians in America (NAVTA). Gail Wolz, its first president, started the trend of leadership and professionalism among veterinary technicians. I knew her at Michigan State, where she graduated from the veterinary technician program in 1974, the same year I graduated from their veterinary school. We called her “super tech.”
Before there were college-trained veterinary technicians, veterinarians did on-the-job training. The veterinarian hired people, trained them, and paid them cheap. They only knew the skills for that practice. I paid my first technician $4 an hour in 1975. She made such an impact on my practice that I raised her to $5!
Only in the past few years have we been talking in terms of the veterinary health care team. Technicians are vital to good medicine. There has been a tremendous evolution. So many technicians are stepping up in leadership. They’re passing the torch and new leaders are coming up.
How has the education of veterinary technicians changed over the past few decades?
Education is very different from what it was 30 years ago. It used to be about teaching. Now it’s about learning and collaboration more than just listening to the sage from the stage. I’m also the guide from the side, mentoring.
Blended learning—combining face-to-face instruction, hands-on coaching, the virtual classroom, and self-paced learning—started happening in the early 2000s. Our program started using discussion boards on Facebook and saw students learning from one another. Technology today allows students to connect with one another 24/7. We now have 3,600 students on our Facebook page.
With the power of online communities, students can learn so much from one another and mentor one another. In my opinion, students online are better than students in the classroom. They learn and retain and apply more. The coolest thing about online discussion forums is that introverted students who would never speak in the classroom will engage in the online forum. Some of the best veterinary technicians are introverted but brilliant.
What are the different types of students you encounter, and what do they need to flourish?
I see 3 types of students in the veterinary technician program:
The first are students who may have been working in a veterinary practice, possibly for years, and believe they are already excellent technicians. They may simply want to put in their time, graduate, and get credentialed. However, what is needed is the beginner’s mindset so they develop the skills to be humble and realize they still have something to learn.
There are also students who really love animals and want to save them all, but perhaps do not understand how to approach their teammates with ethical and other concerns. They may not have the skill set or the confidence yet to approach their team members, and they need the tools to build a quiet assertiveness and their self-esteem. This will come from their associations with other students and later their team members and professional organizations.
The nontraditional students have been showing up over the past 10 years or so. These 30- to 50-somethings have had another career and realize they want to do something different. They say to themselves, “I really want to do something special with my life now, and I am going to go for it." They have worked in the "real world" and perhaps have more realistic expectations.
We plug all 3 types into the profession using resources including Veterinary Team Brief, veterinary technician websites, and NAVTA.
What are the most important things all today’s students need to learn to excel as veterinary technicians?
Penn Foster's mission is to develop veterinary technicians who have excellent people skills as well as excellent technical skills. Even though we treat and service animals, we are a people business. What we really need to teach our technicians is quiet assertiveness that says, “I know how to do that. I have been trained. I can do that for you.”
What do veterinarians need to learn about veterinary technicians?
If veterinarians knew what veterinary technicians could do, it would blow their minds. Technicians are vital to good medicine. There are only 3 things technicians cannot do legally: diagnose, perform surgery, and prescribe medication. Intravenous catheters, laboratory diagnostic work, toenail trimming, and anesthesia induction and monitoring are some things that many veterinarians continue to do—but these are all duties that technicians are trained to do well.
“If veterinarians release some of their control, there will be less stress.”
There’s a huge list of essential skills that the AVMA Committee on Veterinary Technician Education and Activities (CVTEA) requires of all graduates of AVMA-accredited programs—about 250 “musts” covering office procedures and client relations; pharmacology; nursing and surgical nursing; anesthesia; laboratory and laboratory animal procedures; imaging; and avian, exotic, small mammal, and fish procedures.1
If veterinarians release some of their control, there will be less stress, and more profit centers will be profitable. For example, allowing technicians to educate clients and sell preventive care can be a win-win-win for the practice, the patient, and the client.
How can veterinary technicians help practices increase their profits, and how can veterinarians help them accomplish this?
Good medicine is good business. AAHA hospitals utilize veterinary technicians best because their focus is business. Veterinarians need to look at profit centers that technicians can impact.
If a practice has 5 veterinarians and one technician, there are some veterinarians there who are doing technician work.
A good ratio is 2 college-trained technicians per veterinarian. Dennis McCurnin (president/director of the Western Veterinary Conference and Louisiana State University Professor Emeritus) recommends 4 to 5 veterinary support team members per veterinarian.
If veterinarians had more technicians and made better use of their skills, their practices would make more money. An article in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association reported that each credentialed veterinary technician hired could add $93,311 to the typical veterinary practice’s annual income.2
What new career options are developing?
There are so many more career pathways now, in practices, teaching, research, government, and nonprofits. More specialties and advanced degrees are being developed, and more associate degree graduates want to get their bachelor’s degree. I am amazed at the number of specialty practices, and they are so pro-veterinary technicians; they need them for intensive care, surgery, and anesthesia.
Please share your vision for the future of veterinary technicians.
We are looking at a profession that is still growing, with much more to come. Technicians will be needed to specialize more and get their bachelor’s degree. St. Petersburg College now offers the only online AVMA-accredited bachelor of applied science in veterinary technology degree. And Colorado State University is considering a veterinary professional associate master’s program that would qualify a technician to become the veterinary equivalent of a physician assistant or nurse practitioner.3
The profession is going in that direction.
*Dr. Jim Hurrell is a member of the Veterinary Team Brief Advisory Board.