Outcomes of the NEAT Annual Meeting

The Second NEAT Annual Meeting in Wageningen (14-15 October 2014) was instrumental in clarifying issues concerning the introduction of economics teaching in the veterinary curriculum. One recurrent aspect of our discussions was recognition that veterinary graduates enter a wide range of occupations that draw on their particular skills. Another was that different countries and regions of the world have correspondingly different needs which reflect the nature and role of animal populations in the economy and society, and also institutional structures for delivering veterinary education. But competition for scarce time in veterinary curricula is universal, and must be taken into account when considering how to introduce economics.

The session devoted to ‘How to establish the economics of animal health in veterinary medicine? Needs and different options’ reinforced a sense that a consensus has begun to emerge. Specifically, the first requirement is for veterinarians and economists to be capable of communicating through the medium of a shared professional language when an animal health problem is interpreted as an economic problem. Initially, this demands only a mutually understood vocabulary. Obvious examples are the distinctions between supply and demand, private and public costs and benefits, economic and financial value, real and nominal values, the definitions of opportunity cost, markets, economic welfare, and externalities. Importantly, the baseline requirement is only for veterinarians to understand why and how economists will structure and approach any given animal health problem for analysis. Similarly, to work together effectively, economists must appreciate veterinarians’ perspectives.

Veterinarians are not trained to be economists. But they do need to have sufficient understanding of economics to guide and comment constructively as economists go about their work. At this level they do not need instruction in quantitative analytical techniques any more than, say, an economist needs to know how to administer a vaccine. Economists are qualified to undertake economic research, and veterinarians are qualified to apply animal health science. The relationship is complementary, and specialism in one of these is not qualification to practise the other. The objective is to enable economists and veterinarians to work together effectively.

Thus veterinary students need only the most rudimentary understanding of economic concepts and relationships, sufficient on their graduation to equip them to work with economists towards a common end.  Achieving that goal should be feasible after few hours of classroom instruction and discussion. Use of classroom time can be made still more efficient if instruction reflects the jobs markets veterinary graduates will enter. For example, farm animal veterinarians need emphasis on production economics concepts, companion animal veterinarians on factors affecting owners’ willingness to pay, and sector level specialists who enter government service on market and wider economy effects. International trade and economic development is another category, in which animals’ contribution to GDP and the balance of payments figure prominently.  The blend of topics addressed and the relative weights accorded within a given course time allocation can be adjusted accordingly.

All of the above is feasible, with potential to lay the foundation for further integration of economics within veterinary medicine education. But first, the importance of economics in the field of animal health can be demonstrated at elementary level for a modest expenditure of time.

Keith Howe
The Royal Veterinary College

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