BOSTON — Less than two months into her career as a veterinary professional, Erin Spencer got drafted to fill in for a technician who normally monitored anesthesia during pet surgeries and had called in sick.
At that point, Spencer recalled Monday, she had "absolutely no training" as an anesthesia technician. She was told to relay numbers and vital signs to the surgeon, but Spencer did not recognize the warning signs, the surgeon did not notice something was amiss, and the cat they were operating on died.
That incident happened nearly 20 years ago, but Spencer told lawmakers on Monday that similar tragedies are still taking place because Massachusetts still lacks sufficient regulations and licensing requirements for veterinary technicians, a gap targeted in new legislation (H 406 / S 219).
"On-the-job training can mean that somebody with absolutely no experience is doing jobs they're not qualified to do," Spencer, now an educator in veterinary technology and legislative chair of the Massachusetts Veterinary Technician Association, said. "We have no rules in place, and so therefore these kinds of things have happened and continue to happen. We're putting our animals at risk by not having that type of oversight."
Massachusetts is one of only 10 states that does not have a state-regulated credentialing system in place for veterinary technicians, leaving licensure to private, voluntary systems, supporters of the bill say.
Bill sponsor Sen. Joan Lovely told her colleagues at a Joint Committee on Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure hearing that while some technicians seek training and licensure on their own, the existing state regulatory structure leaves those steps as an option rather than a single, consistent set of requirements.
That means that "any person with any level of experience can work in a veterinary practice and be called a veterinary technician," Lovely, a Salem Democrat, said.
Those individuals are often given tasks such as inducing anesthesia, placing catheters and performing diagnostic testing, Lovely said, all without a consistent set of training and licensing requirements subject to state oversight.
Lovely's legislation would create a new subsidiary board for veterinary technology within the Board of Registration in Veterinary Medicine and task it with developing education requirements and standards outlining the job duties that technicians can perform.
Technicians would need to complete a degree program approved by the American Veterinary Medical Association, pass a national exam, and participate in continuing education during their careers, according to a bill summary from the Massachusetts Veterinary Technician Association.
"By requiring vet techs to follow licensing guidelines, veterinary clinic owners and pet owners can be confident that vet techs can provide licensed care and appropriate safety protocols," Lovely said.
Four community colleges in Massachusetts offer associate degrees in veterinary technician programs. Ed Carlson, president of the National Association of Veterinary Technicians in America, told lawmakers that educational programs have been around for years even though the state has yet to embrace them as a baseline requirement.
"This isn't a new profession, but unfortunately, we're really behind the eight ball here," Carlson said. "This is long past due, not only to protect the animals within the state of Massachusetts, but also to protect the general public and the pet-owning public in the state of Massachusetts."
Supporters said the COVID-19 pandemic amplified the need for a robust veterinary technician licensing program.
Many families who shifted to working and learning from home during the public health crisis adopted pets, creating a backlog for veterinarian appointments. Ensuring that technicians are more educated could help clinics tap a greater number of employees to help manage care needs, bill backers said.
Jeni Mather, president and founder of JM Pet Resort in Brockton, told the panel that she employs both privately certified and uncertified veterinarian technicians, including one who has been employed for more than 25 years but never got formally certified.
Mather said that, while she agrees that Massachusetts is "behind the times" in mandating technician licensure, she hopes lawmakers include language allowing those with experience but no certification to be "grandfathered in" or test for certification without additional education.
"It is correct that with the pandemic and this incredible boom in our industry that right now, we already have an extreme shortage of veterinarians, veterinary professionals, and veterinary technicians," Mather said. "If we were to take all of our veterinary technicians that have years and years of experience that are qualified and essentially demote them to veterinary assistants, because that's what the bill reads as, I feel that would be an unfair thing to do to people trying to make a living that are qualified."