Jan. 5, 2023

UCalgary initiative to address veterinarian shortage earns medal

Vet Med dean credits team effort for award of Queen Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee Medal
Renate Weller receives the medal from Alberta Minister of Agriculture and Irrigation Nate Horner.
Renate Weller receives the medal from Alberta Minister of Agriculture and Irrigation Nate Horner. Government of Alberta

When Dr. Renate Weller, DVM, PhD, opened the email saying she was to receive Alberta’s Queen Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee Medal for her “significant contributions to Alberta” — helping increase the number of veterinarians — she had to read the message twice.

“I first thought, honestly, is this real? They can't mean me!” Weller says. “It’s like a team sport where you have a whole team on the pitch, a whole support team around you, and you score the goal and everyone cheers. This is an honour not of me, but credit goes to the whole team that’s addressing this challenge.”

That challenge is dealing with the critical shortage of veterinary professionals not only in the province, but also across the country and around the world. Having too few veterinarians in Alberta threatens the health of domestic animals and livestock and also the province’s animal production industry and public health.

“There are many animals that require veterinary care, ranging from pets for our enjoyment and well-being, animals that work for us such as service dogs and horses, and animals that feed us, such as beef, dairy, poultry and pork,” Weller says. “This constitutes a massive economic factor in Alberta.

Let’s not forget the importance veterinarians play in ensuring food safety and working closely with our human counterparts in protecting the population from zoonotic diseases.

As Weller started her role as UCVM dean in 2021, the Alberta Veterinary Medical Association (ABVMA) had just published a thorough analysis of the issues surrounding the shortage. “I was asked by the government how the faculty can contribute to solve it. One of the ministers rang me and said, ‘Okay, we have this shortage. What can we do? What's the solution to the problem?’”

Renate Weller at medal presentation

Renate Weller is in the back row, centre, at the medal presentation.

Government of Alberta

Scholars and staff at UCVM worked closely with the ABVMA to come up with a six-initiative plan to address the veterinarian shortage in Alberta. With the help of $59 million in provincial funding, “We have started delivering on this,” she says. One aspect of the plan already underway is increasing the number of students UCVM accepts every year into its DVM program and ensuring it's ready to accept 100 students annually by 2025.

“We are running as fast as we can,” says Weller. “We will open our doors in September 2025 to double the number of students. The degree in veterinary medicine is a four-year program so it takes a while for those people to hit the market. In the meantime, we are working with the ABVMA, employers and rural municipalities to get a recruitment, onboarding and mentorship program going that will allow us to bring international veterinarians in to alleviate the problem in the short term.”

The Platinum Jubilee medal, awarded to Weller on Dec. 20 in Edmonton, recognizes these efforts. Weller plans to display the medal “somewhere where everyone can see it,” with a sign that says: “This is a team award.”

A personal connection to the Queen

Weller is one of 7,000 Albertans to receive the medal as part of the 2022 Platinum Jubilee year celebrations, but she’s likely the only recipient to have tended to some of Her Majesty’s horses.

It was pleasure to meet Queen Elizabeth II on a few occasions and I've also done some work on her animals,” says Weller, who worked in the U.K. as director of veterinary education at a large veterinary services provider, as well as professor at the Royal Veterinary College at the University of London.

“This is doubly meaningful to me as it is named in her honour. I feel very personally connected. This means a lot to me, and I am very honoured.”

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