May 15, 2004

 

 Officers on the road

 
Officers on the road is a monthly feature of the JAVMA News, designed to let AVMA members know about the issues their leadership is addressing.

In the April 1 JAVMA, representatives from the AVMA's three platinum-level convention sponsors—Hill's Pet Nutrition Inc., Bayer Animal Health, and Merial Ltd.—talked about the symbiotic relationship between corporate partners and the veterinary profession, along with the limitations and choices involved in sponsorship decisions.

Recently, two AVMA presidents shared insights from their vantage points. Current president, Dr. Jack O. Walther is semi-retired on his ranch in Lamoille, Nev., and practices part time in Elko. Dr. Mary Beth Leininger was AVMA president from 1996-1997 while a practitioner in Michigan, and is currently Hill's director of professional affairs.

As AVMA presidents, how were your eyes opened in a different way to the relationship of corporate partners with veterinary organizations and veterinarians?

Drs. Walther and Leininger Dr. Jack O. Walther

and Dr. Mary Beth Leininger

respond:

 

Walther: Having been involved for many years at the state level, I know that state associations could not have good continuing education if not for our corporate sponsors. The Wild West Veterinary Conference is a perfect example. In Nevada, we had a nice meeting but no sponsorships, and as a result, the quality of the CE was definitely inferior. California is larger and had more access to sponsorships, but the two states joined together to attract even more sponsorship, and Wild West has grown from there. Now, as AVMA president and also president of the Western Veterinary Conference, I feel we need to strengthen our relationship with corporate entities at the national level. There are great benefits for the sponsors and the veterinary organizations, particularly the AVMA.

Leininger: When I was a private practitioner, companies that sponsored CE seemed like wallpaper—they were just always there, and we assumed they always would be. But when I got involved with the Michigan VMA, I began to understand the limitations of our organization's budget and saw important programs not funded because member-based income was so limited. As AVMA president, I became even more aware that if we did not have judicious partnerships with industry, veterinary organizations couldn't accomplish even a small portion of the programs and projects our members need. Certainly, continuing education is one of the strongest needs. Corporate support allows conference and convention registration fees to be substantially lower. Until several years ago, I never truly understood that in other professions, it costs a whole lot more to attend good CE programs.

I think Jack will remember back in 1996-1997 when Hill's stepped up to the plate and made its first million-dollar commitment to the AVMA to improve educational offerings for companion animal practitioners at convention. Since then, there has been an exponential improvement in the kind of continuing education that the AVMA offers to attendees every year. The Association has recognized the importance of partnerships with groups that are like-minded, and those are companies like Hill's in the veterinary industry.

Walther: As Mary Beth said very well, the underlying thing that major corporate funding changed was our ability to raise the quality and amount of CE, including the speakers and interactive labs. Years back, there was far more emphasis on political activities. If you ask attendees why they're coming to the convention this year but maybe didn't in the past, the resounding reason is CE. Corporate sponsorship has allowed our convention to blossom.

Leininger: There are also programs beyond CE conferences that organizations need help with. The National Commission on Veterinary Economic Issues is a good example. Back in 1999, when NCVEI was begun, if it weren't for Hill's and the other founding corporate sponsors (Bayer, Merial, Novartis, Pfizer, and Veterinary Pet Insurance), the NCVEI wouldn't even have gotten off the ground.

Are greater visibility and feedback what sponsors need most from the profession?

Walther: Both at AVMA and Western, we are making a more conscientious effort to recognize our sponsors than ever in the past, because without them, these events could not be the high quality that they are.

One of the major things I see is reluctance on AVMA's part to tie its name to sponsorship programs. We have had a great relationship with Hill's on the National Pet Dental Health Month campaign for a number of years, for example, but we still do not allow the AVMA name to be placed with the Hill's t/d product name on promotional items. There are times that sponsored products and the AVMA name are going to have to show up together on specific promotional items. This will take a change of philosophy and some time, but I believe the leadership of AVMA is starting to see the rationale of this type of cooperative effort.

Leininger: Like Jack, I wear a couple of hats. My position with Hill's gives me a chance to see the partnership process from a different perspective. Hill's receives hundreds of requests every year to support programs and projects that, at some level, will benefit the profession and our practitioner colleagues. Our challenge is to use the finite resources we have available—and the dollars get tighter every year—and make choices that score a win for everyone concerned: the association, our profession, individual practitioners and their health care teams, our company, and the pets we all ultimately serve. If the proposed program grows business for our company and for practitioners, we know we've made the right choice.

Jack just mentioned National Pet Dental Health Month, and that's a good example. It was just getting started back in the '90s when I was AVMA president, and it's now in its 10th year. With National Pet Dental Health Month, Hill's made the strategic decision to not only create and market a technologically advanced oral care nutrition product, we would also help practitioners to tell the story of good oral health to their clients. Obviously, this is a partnership with AVMA and the veterinary dental organizations that our company treasures, because it has made a difference to practitioners: between 10,000 and 12,000 practices request National Pet Dental Health Month materials from Hill's every year.

In April, the Executive Board approved the first AVMA guidelines on corporate partnerships—written criteria for judging strategic partnership opportunities. Your thoughts?

Walther: Those were excellent first steps. You have to walk before you run, and this is a very conscious movement to start the process and work our way into it. There were a lot of challenges with making this type of a change workable for everybody concerned. What the Executive Board did was right on target.

Leininger: Anything that makes both parties' responsibilities clearer is of benefit.

What is your key message about corporate sponsors?

Walther: From the AVMA's standpoint, the relationship between the Association and corporate sponsors has never been better, and we are working extremely hard to maintain and expand that type of relationship. The end benefit from all of that will be for our profession and veterinarians in the United States.

Leininger: Jack is certainly right. Speaking from my company's point of view, our end goal is that practitioners and their entire health care teams be able to provide better care to their patients and build their businesses.

Hill's has a culture of commitment to our profession, and we look long-term for results. Our commitments to the NCVEI and the AVMA convention are perfect examples of that approach. But like most companies in the industry, we are publicly traded and have to justify how we spend our money.

What we need from organizations is that they help our practitioner partners recognize that our sponsorship is important and valuable to them right in their own hometowns and in their own practices. What we need from veterinarians is to recognize that the companies that support our profession do so to help grow and support both the veterinary profession and our businesses—it needs to be a win-win solution. The profession, our businesses, your clients, and your patients all stand to benefit when veterinarians and industry work together.