San Juan County struggles to attract new veterinarians

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FARMINGTON — When Aztec Animal Clinic closed in May it marked the third veterinary clinic in San Juan County to close its doors in the past three years.

Less than half a dozen veterinary clinics now serve San Juan County residents, and the majority of those clinics are located in Farmington.

After Aztec Animal Clinic closed in May, Valley Veterinary Clinic took the building's lease and the patient files. Dr. Darren Woodson, who owns Valley Veterinary Clinic, said his clinic is looking nationwide for a new veterinarian to work at Valley Veterinary Clinic. If a new veterinarian is hired, Woodson said the vets will rotate working at the Aztec Animal Clinic as a satellite office. However, he has received little interest in the position.

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Woodson attributes the challenges in finding a new veterinarian to new graduates opting to work in larger cities or for corporate veterinary clinics. 

Dr. Shayna Whitaker, who opened Paw Prints Vet Clinic in Bloomfield a little more than a year ago, said it is hard to get veterinarians to relocate to small, low-income communities. 

"You have to have another reason to move here," she said.

Whitaker moved to Bloomfield when her husband took a job as chief of police for the Bloomfield Police Department.

Paw Prints Vet Clinic is a small facility that provides limited services. Whitaker said she focuses on what she sees is the greatest need — low cost spays and neuters. When people call about sick pets, radiographs or injuries, she refers them to San Juan Veterinary Hospital in Farmington.

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If Valley Veterinary Clinic is able to reopen the Aztec clinic, it will also have limited services. The small metal building located off of West Aztec Boulevard behind Big O Tires has never been a fully-equipped facility. It does not have equipment to perform radiographic imaging or process blood tests. Woodson said the clinic, which opened in 1994, never used computers. The pet medical records were hand-written in black ink on notebook paper. The patient's name and information were highlighted using yellow highlighters.

Woodson said his clinic will have to scan the records into computer systems.

While the written documents provide challenges, Woodson said the records are important. He recognized not every Aztec Animal Clinic client will choose to take their pet to Valley Veterinary Clinic. Those who do become Valley Veterinary Clinic's clients will have the advantage of continuity of care. Woodson explained that his staff will know what type of care the pets have received in the past.

Whitaker said there is a demand for veterinary services in the small communities, however the economy makes it hard for a full-scale veterinary hospital to open in Bloomfield.

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Changes in technology and in the industry have made it hard for single-veterinary practices like Aztec Animal Clinic to provide services. The smaller clinics are not able to afford expensive technology, like ultrasound machines.

"Practices are getting bigger so they can have this kind of technology," Woodson said.

Another challenge is the amount of student loan debt veterinary students incur.

The average student loan debt for a veterinarian is more than $140,000, according to a 2016 American Veterinary Medical Association report.

"With that they just can't come to a rural area and start a practice," Whitaker said.

Hannah Grover covers government for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652.

 

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