Veterinarians are in such short supply in the Bay Area that they ‘aero commute’ in

A Note From Adobe: A good article from the SFGate about staffing shortages at vet hospitals in our community.  At Adobe, we started flying in vets over 2 years ago, we have Telemedicine available 5 days a week and a 30 person remote team to try to help our clients.  But we know that’s there’s even more need! We are looking for more ways to use technology to help our clients and their pets.  Thank you for being patient with our team and for understanding that we want to help and are looking for new and creative ways to make that happen. ~ Summer Burke-Irmiter, President

Veterinarians are in such short supply in the Bay Area that they ‘aero commute’ in

Photo of Tessa McLean
Members of The ElleVet Project caring for unhoused animals. 

Members of The ElleVet Project caring for unhoused animals. 

Craig T. Mathew/Mathew Imaging/Craig T. Mathew/Mathew Imaging

San Francisco dog owners love to joke that there are more dogs than kids in the city. But the often touted stereotype is actually true — there were roughly 150,000 dogs and only around 115,000 minors in the city in 2016 according to census data and San Francisco Animal Care & Control — and this number is likely way out of date since so many people got pets during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

This makes the ongoing nationwide veterinarian shortage feel especially acute in the Bay Area — so much so that some clinics are flying in veterinarians from around the country just to fill shifts.

For Katie Corrigan, the chief financial officer at Animal Care & Emergency Services (ACES), a veterinary clinic in the Sunset District, the decision to use out-of-state workers was one of necessity. Aside from grappling with the nationwide shortage of veterinarians and veterinary technicians, there simply aren’t enough that want to live in the Bay Area, largely due to the high cost of living. She said a lot of employees already commute in from other parts of the Bay Area, and when the clinic was having trouble hiring, employees used their network to see if veterinarians in other states would be able to fly in.

In response to the cost of flights and hotels getting prohibitive, ACES set up its own housing, which it rents for doctors who “aero commute” in for a week or two at a time. Corrigan said they have had doctors coming in from Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Southern California and Texas and they’re continuing to talk to specialists who may be willing to travel. “It’s more alluring to people to spend a week in San Francisco working than a month living here,” she said. “… In order for the industry to keep moving forward and survive, we have to be able to deliver care.”

Corrigan, who’s been in veterinary care since 1996, knows this is not a long-term solution, but unfortunately, she doesn’t see one at all. “It’s hard to hire veterinarians,” she said. “There just aren’t enough to go around right now. The process of getting new veterinarians is them going through school so it’s just not going to catch up anytime soon.”

Plus, people are leaving the field altogether. “We’re facing the battle of burnout and compassion fatigue,” Corrigan said. “And we need to hire so we can have it so everyone isn’t working until burnout.”

Doctors and nurses are overworked and underpaid, she said — and they’re busier than ever. 

Rakesh Tondon, a former investment banker and the founder of clothing service Le Tote, and his wife Hetal Shah, a former Google executive, call themselves a typical pandemic story. Like so many others, they adopted a puppy during the pandemic, but while experiencing veterinary services for the first time, the couple was shocked at both the quality and availability of care for their “third child.” They left their jobs to start a technology and preventative care-focused veterinary clinic called Dr. Treat.

“There is just so much room for improvement for the level of care and service that needs to be delivered,” Tondon said. “We’re taking a lot of learnings from human health and applying them to animal health.”

Tondon said most of the health care for pets is reactive care, but what pets really need is preventative care. He is a member at Forward, a tech-minded health care company, and seeks to bring Forward’s practices to Dr. Treat. The first step in evaluating an animal at Dr. Treat is administering genetic testing and a health evaluation, then having AI and machine learning use that data to help develop a curated health care plan for the pet. 

The company will focus on cats and dogs initially but has plans to expand to birds and reptiles eventually. He said with their approach and the most recent technology, they’ll be able to accommodate 50% to 70% more patients than a typical clinic.

Corrigan said the lack of preventative care for animals is a leading problem, and if more clinics we able to focus on it, it would help keep more animals out of emergency care. “The preventative care is what’s really going to help with the long-term issues if you catch them early,” she said. “That way you’re not coming up in the middle of the night not knowing what’s going on.”

Dr. Treat has enough veterinarians to open, Tondon said, but hiring has been difficult. “The vet shortage existed prior to the pandemic, but the pandemic made it significantly worse because people went out and got more pets,” Tondon said. “We’ve seen roughly 45% to 48% of households in the U.S. have pets, now it’s over 72% of households have pets. The number of vets that graduate from school every year is roughly 3,500 and the number of vets isn’t growing at the same rate as people adopting pets.”

One barrier for veterinary clinics, Tondon said, is they often use antiquated technology, making it difficult for even receptionists to do their jobs efficiently. Though he admits the adoption of better technology and the opening of his new clinic certainly won’t solve the vet shortage for the Bay Area, he hopes increasing efficiency helps.

“​​One clinic is not going to make a difference, but as we continue to grow the company this should be a game-changer for the industry,” Tondon said. “We want to be the company that not only does well ourselves but shares the prototype for what we’re doing and others should do it too.”

The first Dr. Treat is slated to open in the Marina this summer, with a membership fee starting at $250 annually. Plans are to eventually expand throughout the Bay Area and nationwide. 

Dr. Treat isn’t the only tech-forward vet company opening up in the Bay Area this year. Modern Animal is opening an office at 401 Divisadero St. this year, replacing an old Chase Bank, and others in Russian Hill and Mill Valley are expected by the end of 2022. The company also promises a more modern experience, with chic office space and 24/7 telemedicine, a mobile app and unlimited visits. The company already has four clinics open in LA, many of which are at capacity, with more expected to open. 

The introduction of telemedicine, something both new companies promote, was rarely used in veterinary care until the pandemic. While Corrigan said it is a difficult replacement for an office visit in the animal world — your dog can’t exactly rate his pain on a scale of 1 to 10 — it at least helps triage whether someone needs emergency care or not. 

Emergency care is still hard to come by in the Bay Area — the list of clinics offering 24/7 visits is sparse — but care is even harder to get if you don’t know where to go or can’t afford it. For the past three years, pets of unhoused people have been able to get care for free from The ElleVet Project, a nonprofit developed in response to the pandemic. Co-founder Amanda Howland, her partner Christian Kjaer and their team of veterinarians packed an RV for the first time in 2020 and have been traveling the country to places with  large unhoused populations and offering care including general checkups, vaccines and emergency surgeries. They spent two days in the Tenderloin and two days in Bayview this summer.

Howland said that in the past, local veterinarians have been eager to help out with the project, but this year it was especially difficult to find volunteers. Their work schedules simply couldn’t accommodate it, she said, or they were just too burned out to work another day. “Compassion burnout is really high. Working long hours and being overworked and working with difficult pet parents is hard,” she said.

Howland said that anecdotally she’s heard of people leaving the profession because of burnout. She said the industry needs to make the working environment better with shorter days and higher pay. But there’s still no solution in sight, so in the meantime she tries to educate people about the stress on the veterinary profession.

“Be kind to your vet. They’re doing an incredible service,” Howland said. “Remember that it’s a tough job.”