Thursday, January 24, 2013
Why large animal veterinarians need to know something about economics
On many veterinary faculties, the students receive some teaching in economics. Many times this is provided by an agricultural economist who does not speak the language of the veterinarians very well. Students are taught production economics (the basics of it) and the link between their veterinary profession and the economics is far away. Moreover, economics is not seen as a basic need for veterinarians, especially now more and more veterinarians are moving into companion medicine instead of large animal medicine. The rationale for the economics in the veterinary curriculum was lying in the fact that veterinarians should need a bit about the economics of their customers: the farmers. That is not needed when going for companion animal medicine.
When I started to teach economics at the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine of Utrecht University (hired in from Wageningen) in 2001, I could teach my own course. The course was a combination of production economics as well as animal health economics. And through the time (we are now two curriculum changes further), the amount of economics has decreased. First my course was combined (and reduced) with another course into Veterinary Herd Health Management and now it is part of the course Epidemiology and Breeding. Besides that basic work there are a few lectures and working groups in the Master phase of the curriculum.
When I write this, I am travelling back from Bangkok to the Netherlands. I have given two invited presentations during the ICVS (International Conference for Veterinary Science), held for the 38th time and organized by the Thai Veterinary Medical Association. It was great to be hosted by a former PhD of our Utrecht group, Chaidate Inchaisri, who is doing interesting disease decision support work now in Thailand at the Chulalongkorn University.
The title of my presentations were Econonomic side of veterinary work. The first presentation gave some economic backgrounds and reasons that economics are important in the veterinary field. The second presentation gave applications of economic calculations on the individual animal, herd and regional level and was meant to make the audience think about possible applications in their own field of work.
I was told on forehand that economics is not seen as being important by many Thai veterinarians and I was programmed parallel with two presentations entitled: New era of antibiotic use. I lost the competition :-). My room was far less filled than the other room. I do understand veterinarians that choose to learn more about treatments, because that comes much closer to the day to day work they are doing. But still I also believe that some understanding of economics is essential for veterinarians working in the field of large animal medicine. Why? I’ll tell you.
There are two reasons:
1. Veterinarians do give advices to farmers on treatments, disease prevention, etc. Veterinarians are aiming at maximum animal health and do believe that their advice that their advice is the best for the farmer. And I do believe that farmers should be able to trust the veterinarians for that as well. However, the goal of a farmer is not to maximize animal health (at least in most cases not). Farmers also want to make a living, have constraints in time and money and the advice should take that into account (optimizing vs maximizing). Therefore some knowledge about the costs of their advice, vs the benefits in terms of improved animal health, but also improved income of the farmer is thus important.
2. Veterinarians need to sell their products. For drugs that is easy: in most countries, vets are the only persons that are allowed to sell drugs. There is a tendency, however, that more and more of the income of farmers have to be earned by selling advices, for instance through veterinary herd health and management programs. In order to sell these “products”, the economic consequences (benefits) of these products need to be known. It has been shown that for Dutch farmers economic reasons are an important (but not only) reason for farmers to participate in a veterinary herd health and management program. For farmers not participating, economics were a very important reason not to participate.
Now, should veterinarians know everything about economics? No of course not. I think vets should be able to reason economically and to be able to critically interpret scientific and applied work from people such as myself so that they can support farmers and market their products.