Nationwide vet shortage pushing staff to breaking point

Nationwide vet shortage pushing staff to breaking point

By Hugo Cameron of RNZ

Vets say a nationwide shortage of staff, drought and uncertainty due to Covid-19 is pushing them to a breaking point.

Veterinary Association (NZVA) chief officer Helen Beattie said the country is between 50 and 100 vets short, which is affecting the well-being of both people and animals.

"We know there's a bunch of vets out there that are going well above and beyond and, as we know, that's for a limited time only for all of us."

Beattie said NZVA had talked to vets who had stood down temporarily due to work-life imbalance affecting the well-being of them and their families.

Geraldine vet Hilary McCullough said her rural practice was struggling to find three more staff which would take pressure off current workers.

McCullough said holidays were managed carefully to look after the physical and mental health of vets who were working "extremely hard" at the 24/7 clinic.

"Day to day it just means you don't really get a lot of downtime, so when you are trying to get through your workload often you are often skipping breaks, lunch breaks, to try and get the amount of work finished.

"Some aspects of our job are really stressful and you don't really get a chance to recover from that before you're into the next job."

Some softening of border rules to allow in overseas vets and more effort to retain vets thinking about leaving the industry should happen before their most busy time in spring, McCullough said.

The Government allowed 30 vets into the country last year and Beattie said the association was discussing further border exemptions with the government - but it was not seeing much progress.

"It's certainly come to a bit of a grinding halt at the moment. We've got a second phase of a campaign that we are about to get involved with, in the very short term, but we haven't had any luck getting an exemption for that next cluster of vets that we'd like to see coming on-shore."

Beattie said the association would like something similar to new rules in Australia, which allowed veterinarians to request a special exemption to enter the country.

"Now we're really worrying whether we are going to be competing with vets who would have come here but may now find it easier to go to Australia."

The shortage was spreading pressure to farmers who might not be able to access urgent veterinary care when it was needed, especially with a dry winter forecast, Beattie said.

"We are very aware of the importance [of] that relationship that farmers have with their veterinarian.

"It's difficult to get a vet on farm, to have something dealt with, and to be able to have that relationship functioning in a timely fashion and have farmers getting the advice that they need. Certainly the impacts on farmers are significant as well."

Beattie said vets not being able to attend farms could compromise animal welfare, biosecurity and food safety.