UA Vet Med Program Looks at Needs
An innovative curriculum, scheduled to launch in 2016, hopes to address rural veterinarian shortages and offer unique practical experience while holding down student costs.

By Gabrielle Fimbres, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences
April 8, 2015


Peder Cuneo, a UA Cooperative Extension veterinarian, teaches a small class of veterinary science majors about calving management.
Peder Cuneo, a UA Cooperative Extension veterinarian, teaches a small class of veterinary science majors about calving management. (Photo: Lynn Ketchum)

A veterinary medical education program unlike any other in North America is being created at the University of Arizona College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, with an innovative curriculum that will create jobs, student opportunity and build the state’s economic prosperity.

"We’re going to break the mold and create the first of a (new) generation of veterinary education programs designed for the 21st century," said Dr. Bonnie Buntain, the new coordinator of the UA’s Veterinary Medical and Surgical Program.

"We will provide an exceptional education at a cost that is lower than any other school in North America," said Buntain, a pioneer in veterinary medicine who previously served as a consultant in developing the UA program. Most recently, she helped establish a vet school at the University of Calgary.

The UA program, which will be the state’s only public veterinary medical education program, was approved by the Arizona Board of Regents last September on the heels of a $9 million gift from the Kemper and Ethel Marley Foundation. The program will launch in August 2016.

Prospective students from Arizona and beyond have expressed interest in the hybrid, innovative, year-round program, which is designed to meet the demands of rural areas for veterinarians and to allow students to graduate on firmer financial ground.

"We will at least halve the cost of a D.V.M. education compared to other public programs, and quarter the cost compared with private programs — all while increasing educational content by almost 40 percent,” Buntain said.

According to Buntain, many students today will graduate with more than $300,000 in student-loan debt from schools that cost up to $61,000 annually.

"This is a non-sustainable debt when the typical starting salary is $60,000," she said. "These salaries are even lower in rural areas of the U.S. which have a veterinarian shortage. We plan to have the best value for the money here in Arizona, a unique package of educational opportunity that will also have people working as D.V.M.'s up to four years sooner than any other program. This will be the first of the next generation of U.S. programs for our newest colleagues facing challenges that none of us faced."

In addition to private practice, UA graduates will be competitive for positions in federal, state and local government in food safety and security, biomedical research and other areas.

Buntain brings experience well beyond a private equine practice, having held several positions during her 17 years in the federal government, including chief public health veterinarian and founding director of animal production food safety staff in the Food Safety and Inspection Service.

Satellite Facilities Across State

The UA’s hybrid clinical rotations call for students to receive clinical training not only in satellite University facilities statewide but also in private and public facilities with practicing veterinarians.

In December, the University purchased the Ames Animal Care Facility in Douglas, Arizona, to be one of four satellite locations. The building houses the city of Douglas and Cochise County animal shelters. Other facilities will be in Yuma and Pinal counties and in the Verde Valley.

The model exemplifies UA’s 100% Engagement initiative by providing every student with real-world, hands-on experience beyond what is typically available.

Education will be based on core competencies developed in three areas: commerce, human and animal interdependence, and One Health, which includes the central role D.V.M.'s have in diagnosing and preventing public health disasters due to the spread of diseases shared by animals and humans, such as flu, SARS and even Ebola.

The college is partnering with Arizona veterinarians and members of other industries that employ D.V.M.'s, including a clinical advisory group, to develop the competencies that graduates must have.

Among the partners is Dr. Mary Kay Klein of Southwest Veterinary Oncology.

"Shane Burgess is coming at this from a whole new perspective and is addressing the issues that have become stumbling blocks for students to become veterinarians," Klein said of the college's dean.

"Ultimately what all of us look for in new graduates is the ability to logically take a problem, assess it, and generate a list of differentials and make a concise and specific treatment plan. We want problem solvers and logical thinkers, with all the tools and knowledge they need to be successful and the ability to put that knowledge to use in a clinical setting."

She finds one concept that will be developed to be particularly intriguing: a D.V.M. who is also a licensed nurse practitioner. She said such a person could help rural areas lacking in health care providers for humans and animals.

Because the program is designed from the outset to change as the state’s needs change, it will provide "what the state needs, what students need and what consumers need," Klein said.

The program also is partnering with shelters, including the Humane Society of Southern Arizona and the Hermitage No-Kill Cat Shelter.

Maureen O’Nell, CEO of the Humane Society of Southern Arizona, has been involved in planning for more than a year. HSSA is Tucson’s oldest and largest locally supported animal welfare agency.

"We have a very significant training arena for students," O’Nell said. "We have a lot of animals here every single day with a myriad of health issues. It’s a very stressful environment for our animals. They come with just about any condition you can think of, and on top of that, they have been abandoned. Shelter medicine is very complex."

'It Doesn't Get More Real'

She said the experience also will expose students to pet owners who have limited resources, as well as to animal cruelty — experiences that could serve them well in their profession.

"It doesn’t get more real than this," O’Nell said. "You see everything. I’d love to see students want to be in shelter medicine. This is part of our world."

Buntain said the UA program will open its application period in the spring of 2016.

"We want to attract exceptional people interested in all careers that D.V.M.'s can have, such as the exploding bioscience economy, global commerce in animals and their products, retail, biomedicine and public health — as well as typical practice," she said. 


Resources for the media

Dr. Bonnie Buntain