August 8 marks the end of an era at the AVMA. After 22 years with the Association, more than half of them as the chief administrative officer, Dr. Bruce W. Little is stepping down as executive vice president and passing the mantle of leadership to Dr. W. Ron DeHaven.
Since Dr. Little joined the AVMA in 1985, staff and budget have grown. Veterinarians continue to be admired by the public. The AVMA's influence on government policy has increased. And a number of important initiatives have expanded the viability of the veterinary profession, both in the United States and abroad.
Before exiting the stage, Dr. Little sat down with JAVMA News to reminisce about his years with the Association, talk about how the veterinary profession has changed and the challenges it faces, and share his plans for the future.
How has the AVMA advanced as a profession in your years with the Association? How has the veterinary profession itself evolved?
The AVMA has advanced exponentially. There's just a multitude of matters that have become more important in the past 20 years or so, from the perspective of our ability to advocate for veterinarians in public policy to educating veterinarians and the public about important issues. Also, the profession has become more sophisticated, more professional. We're no longer just the doc who goes out on farm calls. Advances in veterinary technology and education have taken this profession to another level.
What are some of your fondest memories as the Association's top administrative officer?
My memories of AVMA are really good. First of all, I really enjoy the staff. I've been able to become friends with a lot of them. Probably my best attribute is the ability to hire good people, and we've had good staff—professionals in their own right.
Are veterinarians better off now than they were 20 years ago? What obstacles have they overcome?
In my opinion, there's never been a better time to be a veterinarian than now. There are more opportunities, and veterinarians have a much higher degree of respect and credibility. As we all know, jobs are plentiful, and that always is important for someone who's going to pay the price it costs to get a veterinary education.
One of the most important obstacles veterinarians have overcome is a lack of self-esteem—a lack of their own self-value and the value of their service. Veterinarians, it seems, always did their work because they had a desire to help animals. Over time, the veterinarian has enjoyed a much higher level of respect and credibility by the general public and by the government agencies; it's become a more sophisticated profession. Veterinarians have overcome being their own worst enemy in a lot of cases. The adage we used in the National Commission on Veterinary Economic Issues—"I'm a good veterinarian, therefore I'm a bad businessperson"—it's no longer true. Now you can be both and be successful.
What challenges do veterinarians still face?
The obvious obstacle is the veterinary shortage. As that shortage progresses, we'll see more and more nonveterinary groups trying to do the work of the veterinarian. We're already seeing this in the areas of complementary and alternative therapies and equine dentistry. There are people on the fringes, all the time trying to move into what is legally, in most states, the practice of veterinary medicine. So we have to make sure that only licensed veterinarians have the right to practice veterinary medicine. Another major obstacle is the cost of getting a veterinary education.
Talk about the National Commission on Veterinary Economic Issues and other notable AVMA initiatives.
The national commission was probably the biggest initiative that took place while I was at the AVMA. There were a lot of us who felt the veterinary profession was on a crash course with a destructive fate—that we were on a downhill slope with regard to income and salaries; we were on an uphill curve with regard to student debt, practices that couldn't sell, and veterinarians not making money at their practices. The quality of veterinary medicine had the potential of slipping drastically, so the NCVEI came along at a very, very opportune time, and, in my opinion, preserved the veterinary profession. My fear was the veterinarian would take on the same fate as the pharmacist. The pharmacist now is more or less just an employee who works for a large pharmacy. It's still a profession, but the pharmacist is no longer in charge of the drugstore, and veterinary medicine was heading in that same direction.
The most important thing about the NCVEI is it brought to the surface the fact that the public demanded high-quality veterinary care. And in order to do that, veterinarians have to have a business that is profitable so they can purchase sophisticated equipment and hire the help necessary to provide high-quality service. As I've said before, probably the most important thing I've done in my 22 years at the AVMA was when (American Animal Hospital Association executive director) Dr. John Albers and I wrote the bylaws for the NCVEI. It's not necessarily the NCVEI and the work that it does, but the dialogue that it created. The discussion it started at national conventions and forums was about the need to raise the economic base of veterinary medicine, and I think that's happened. In the eight years since the NCVEI started, we've had a 78 percent increase in veterinary salaries, and that means people can go out and purchase the equipment, get the continuing education, and hire the staff that's necessary for high-quality practices.
A second major accomplishment was in 1988 when Marcia Brody, AVMA Governmental Relations Division staff, and I brought a recommendation for the American Association for the Advancement of Science Congressional Fellowship to the Executive Board. That has been a very successful program for the AVMA.
Another initiative was revising the job descriptions of the AVMA divisions. For instance, the Scientific Activities Division had been inclusive of everything left over from some of the other divisions. The accreditation process of the veterinary and veterinary technician schools, along with the work of the Council on Research with regard to research funding and the explosion of veterinary specialties, warranted a stand-alone Education and Research Division. By separating that from the Scientific Activities Division, (the relevant) councils and committees could concentrate on veterinary education, from its accreditation to the quality of students who graduate and also the cost of going to college.
We used to run the annual convention in the Business Division. Convention had been a very passive meeting; hosting a convention was in our bylaws and was a necessary thing to do each year. But what we did in 1996 was to set about making it a bigger, better convention. We've increased the number of continuing education hours, and that seems to be what our members want. They want quality CE across all species and specialties, and we've been able to provide that by taking the CE hours from around 300 to over a thousand. The reputation of the AVMA convention had been that it was a political, good old boys convention, and that's been dispelled now.
How else has the AVMA Annual Convention changed during your tenure?
We used to have the convention site chosen by the members of the House of Delegates. This wasn't a good thing because, so much of the time, their choice was dictated by politics, and the site wasn't always the best place for a convention. We were limiting ourselves by the sites that were chosen. A lot of people are interested in using the convention city as a vacation, and now we choose sites with a broad appeal. I don't know what constitutes a successful convention, whether it's the most people or continuing education hours or the greatest city. I usually try to measure success by the number of smiles I see. Whenever I see people at convention who are happy, then I know we've put together a good convention.
A large portion of the nation's veterinarians are members of the AVMA. What's the importance of such a high percentage?
We've always had 85 to 86 percent of U.S. veterinarians as AVMA members. Study after study has said it's not necessarily the insurance trust or the journals but the need to belong to their professional association. The bottom line is that the AVMA does now provide and has to continue providing value for dues dollars spent. Also, it's important for us to stand together because, as Dr. Leon Russell once said, we could all fit in a college football stadium and still have room left over. We're very small in numbers, therefore, we have to stick together to speak with a unified voice.
The AVMA has become increasingly involved in legislative and regulatory matters at both the federal and state levels. Why has this become necessary?
Every day there's a set of legislators, be they national legislators in Washington or state legislators in the 50 states, who are barraged by special-interest groups. In many cases, it has nothing to do with veterinary medicine, and in many cases it has to do with small business in general, which affects veterinary medicine because veterinary practices are the epitome of small businesses. So it's important that the national and state associations remain abreast of the activities going on during legislative sessions. Many times, politicians don't understand the science or background behind the bills they introduce or vote on. In fact, the people advocating for that bill may not be sure themselves; they want a bill passed because of their compassion or interest in a particular issue, they don't get into the science behind why a given bill is good or not good. So the AVMA and state associations have a responsibility to their members to advocate for their profession in the best interest of the animals we serve.
Many times, legislative activities are not intended to be onerous. But in this complex world we live in, people have to take all these issues to the extreme before they find out there's a problem. A good example is the horse slaughter prevention bill; I raise race horses, but I don't know what the government's going to do with 90,000 unwanted horses a year, because those horses are eventually going to overwhelm the ability of the sanctuaries to take care of them. And as a result, someone's going to have to pay for their care and eventual disposal.
You've attended nine meetings of the International Veterinary Officers Council. Why was that important to you and the AVMA?
After the NCVEI, I think IVOC is one of the most visionary groups we put together in my time at the AVMA. In 1997, we talked about how veterinary medicine was going to become a global profession, and that it was going to be necessary for the AVMA to work with our foreign colleagues on issues such as economic sanctions, international trade, and the transfer of veterinary licensure between countries. And we know that not all the veterinary schools in the world are created equal; therefore, the IVOC became a part of the need for us to standardize veterinary education. Knowing that the veterinary profession was becoming a global profession, I think it showed a lot of foresight to start the ball rolling by building relationships with people from other countries to address the issues of veterinary medicine. IVOC is going to grow even more. There have been requests by other groups to join. But at this time, the IVOC members—which consist of South Africa, England, Canada, United States, Australia, and New Zealand—are not wanting to take new members, simply because if IVOC becomes too big and too cumbersome, it'll lose its effectiveness.
You've attended veterinary meetings throughout the world and collaborated with foreign veterinary colleagues. What can you say about the global impact of the AVMA?
The first place we have to look is the accreditation of veterinary colleges. The AVMA has eight offshore colleges accredited right now, and there are another eight or nine seeking accreditation. We've been meeting with the Mexican and Canadian veterinary associations with regard to standardization and harmonization of the standards for veterinary education. The veterinary accreditation process is the first place the AVMA took the lead. To my knowledge, the AVMA didn't set out to be the gold standard on veterinary accreditation. But as we started to move globally, it became evident that the AVMA's standards were at least equal or were superior to other standards around the world. So we're working with countries such as Mexico, and we're starting to think more about the Pan American countries and Eastern European countries to try to bring up their education standards so they have the opportunity to operate on a global basis.
Standards are so important when you think about world trade and the transfer of animals, animal parts, and products, and, frankly, animal diseases around the world. Since we started IVOC, we've had a foot-and-mouth disease outbreak in England and a continuation of the BSE issue, and so it's just been accentuated that we were right when we decided that veterinary medicine was going to have a global impact.
What are you most proud of about your time at the AVMA?
The thing that I'm most proud of is the staff. We've got really, really good people. The AVMA has grown in the size of staff. We went from 95 when I started to 140, which is a 47 percent increase, and we need to grow more. We've got more issues than we have staff to address them. The Executive Board has been very generous in allowing us to extend staff and fill the gaps where we were deficient.
Nobody ever said you could take a dumb old mixed animal practitioner and make him a chief executive officer of a national organization with global impact. I'm really proud of the fact that I've been able to do that. And that was accentuated when I got the Samuel B. Shapiro Award (see page 358). I really didn't set out to be a not-for-profit association administrator, but that's what I turned out to be. I think I've had a successful career in both clinical veterinary medicine and in association management. What I've been able to bring to the AVMA from the standpoint of managing the Association are the networking and building on the value of bringing people together for a common cause outside the realm of scientific veterinary medicine. I'm happy with that. I've had no professional training to prepare me for that; it just happened. And I've always said that about veterinarians: all other things being equal and if the job called for it, hire the veterinarian who'd been in clinical practice, because if they can walk into an exam room and assess the case and create a diagnosis, communicate that to the client, offer a treatment regimen, and then be held immediately accountable—then they can shuffle papers with anyone.
What do you think your legacy at the AVMA will be?
I hope my legacy is the success in advancing the AVMA. As I said before, we've increased staff size, we've increased our total assets by 125 percent, we've increased our reserve funds by 120 percent; I'm very proud that every year for the 12 years I've been in the office of executive vice president, we've put money back into the reserve fund—we've never been over budget. As a matter of fact, on average, we've put $1.5 million per year in the reserve fund for the 12 years I've been the executive vice president. And I'm proud of that because it hadn't always been that way.
Cash is king. We bought the AVMA headquarters building in Schaumburg, Illinois, and I was able to negotiate from a cash position a $60,000 differential in the purchase of the building. We bought this building for only $300,000 more than we sold our old building for; this building is 76,000 square feet, and our old building was 28,000 square feet, so we tripled our size for just under $300,000. We've remodeled this building twice at a total cost of about $3 million; we bought the building in Washington and remodeled it at a cost of about $4 million. We gave more than $2.5 million to the American Veterinary Medical Foundation; we gave a million dollars for Katrina and tsunami relief. But despite all those big expenditures, we've been able to put about $1.5 million a year on average back into the reserves. That's an accomplishment, one that I'm not responsible for, but the entire staff and board and the organization is responsible for.
What strengths does your successor, Dr. Ron DeHaven, bring to the AVMA?
Dr. DeHaven has had an entire career in regulatory and legislative affairs. He's very well-versed in public health, animal diseases, and the need to be vigilant against the introduction of foreign animal disease, whether it is accidental or intentional. He's going to bring a lot of expertise to the table. Dr. DeHaven will make a great effort in the AVMA's ability to manage these issues. He's going to have a great opportunity to initiate some issues that he's been familiar with for the past 28 to 30 years in his job with the Agriculture Department. His experience comes at a very opportune time as we develop (immediate past) President Roger Mahr's one-world, one-health, one-medicine concept.
What are your plans for life after the AVMA?
I've got horses. We breed Thoroughbred mares with the intention of selling yearlings. But, I think they're worth more money than the buyer thinks, so I end up taking them home, and I end up racing them. That's a hobby, and I intend to continue with that. And then there are those seven grandchildren who have been practically neglected due to time constraints. I need to catch up on those relationships. I certainly would be open to any opportunities to serve on boards of directors for companies. My wife, Nancy, and I will probably do some traveling, seeing parts of the country we haven't seen.
It's been a really good trip for me, a really fun trip. I've had the opportunity to meet some wonderful, wonderful people inside and outside the profession. I've also had the opportunity to help mold, mentor, and develop young people who've shown promise of being superstars in their field, and that gives me a great deal of satisfaction. I grew up in a family of 13 kids and I was third from the bottom, so I have a lot of advisers, and it came natural to me to be an adviser myself, and I appreciate those people who've allowed me to serve as a mentor.