During the first of three national meetings hosted by the North American Veterinary Medical Education Consortium, attendees such as Dr. Paige Carmichael of the University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine (center) were engaged through a series of presentations and breakout sessions in an effort to identify key competencies veterinary graduates should possess.
The plan being developed by the North American Veterinary Medical Education Consortium is being called a road map for the future of veterinary medicine in the United States.
Specifically, the consortium wants to reshape veterinary education into a flexible system that will graduate veterinarians who can satisfy the rapidly changing needs of society, whether that involves extending the longevity of pets through the use of cutting-edge biotechnology or alleviating world hunger by maximizing production of animal protein.
It's a bold undertaking, one that NAVMEC Chair Bennie I. Osburn characterized this way: "This is probably the largest and most comprehensive effort ever undertaken on the part of academic veterinary medicine." Dr. Osburn, dean of the University of California-Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, spoke Feb. 11 in Las Vegas at the first of three national meetings the consortium is hosting this year for stakeholders of the veterinary education system.
The NAVMEC project manager, Dr. Mary Beth Leininger, believes strongly that success will require a sustained, profession-wide effort. "Talking with participants at the meeting, there's clear agreement that NAVMEC must go beyond curriculum and education issues. Meaningful change will come only when we work with those involved in the accreditation process and testing and licensure," said Dr. Leininger, a former AVMA president.
More than a hundred representatives from across every sector of veterinary medicine participated in the three-day meeting, which focused on future societal needs and competencies that veterinary institutions should develop in their graduates.
Time was allotted for stimulus presentations aimed at provoking thought among attendees. How population and demographic changes might affect veterinary medicine was explored along with examples of educational models for instilling specific skill sets in veterinary graduates.
As NAVMEC moves forward, consortium participants will need to consider the escalating cost of veterinary education and how it will likely shrink the pool of college applicants. H.F. "Fritz" Wood, an economist who studies the veterinary profession, told attendees, "What faces us is nothing short of a crisis." Veterinary student debt is increasing about four times as fast as veterinary salaries are, and that isn't sustainable, he warned. While the cost of education is just one piece of the student debt crisis, it can't be ignored.
"There's very soon going to be a point where going into veterinary medicine will not be economically feasible," Wood said.
After the presentations, attendees broke into small discussion groups to generate ideas that were later presented to the entire gathering for further examination. They identified a wide range of generic skills desired in newly minted veterinarians, from curiosity to an understanding of basic epidemiology. The lists of species-specific competencies were equally extensive.
Following the meeting, Dr. Leininger commented on the high volume of skills that stakeholders believe future graduates should possess. "There was this explosion of ideas of what attendees representing all facets of the profession believe new graduates need to have," she said. "Everyone took it to the next level and wanted there to be so much more: graduates need to be adaptable and flexible, with excellent communication, interpersonal, business, leadership, and management skills, no matter what career path they choose."
Ideas generated during this first meeting will be synthesized, and once approved by the NAVMEC board, presented for further evaluation prior to the next NAVMEC meeting, scheduled for Kansas City in late April. (For more information, click here.)
Instituting change in academia is no small task. Woodrow Wilson, president of Princeton University prior to entering public office, once quipped, "It is easier to move a cemetery than to change the school curriculum." Few of the issues NAVMEC wants to address are new, having been identified more than two decades earlier in a national study on the future of veterinary medicine in the United States.
"(V)eterinary medical educational institutions, although attempting to modify their programs and to improve their teaching, research, and service efforts, are too slow in responding, and in too many instances, are not truly aware of how out-of-step veterinary education has become in regard to the needs of the profession and of the various constituencies it serves," according to the 1988 Pew National Veterinary Education Program report, "Future directions for veterinary medicine."
The report went on to say that, while the situation had not yet reached a crisis level, the veterinary profession was being threatened by "powerful forces of change in society" and not adapting quickly enough.
A number of innovations recommended in the Pew report became reality, such as establishing areas of emphasis in the curriculum and creating centers of excellence at some colleges. Major reform was not to be, however, and today the veterinary profession is facing workforce shortages serious enough to jeopardize its ability to effectively serve society, particularly in the areas of food supply veterinary medicine, public health, and biomedical research.
Stakeholders such as the AVMA and others recognize the need for substantial changes within veterinary academia, thanks in part to the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges' Foresight Report. Published in 2007, the report was the impetus for the AAVMC to establish NAVMEC as a mechanism to institute those changes.
The NAVMEC board of directors is composed of three members each representing veterinary education, accreditation, and testing and licensure. Represented on the board are the AAVMC, AVMA, American Association of Veterinary State Boards, and the National Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners.
Speaking after the meeting, Dr. Osburn said veterinary academia understands that the current and future needs of society are beyond any one college's ability to handle. The colleges will, therefore, have to become less independent and more cooperative. "We're going to have to find ways in which we share resources and expertise," he said.
Dr. Peter Eyre was dean of the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine when the Pew report was published, and his college was one of a handful to receive a grant to start a center of excellence described in the study. Commenting after the February meeting, Dr. Eyre said institution-wide reform wasn't forthcoming following the Pew report because, at the time, the veterinary profession lacked the unity to see the proposals carried out. He hopes NAVMEC will bring about the changes called for decades ago and said NAVMEC will be successful if the commission does not limit its focus to veterinary curricula alone.
"I feel very strongly that NAVMEC must be about more than the structure and content of the curriculum," Dr. Eyre said. "The number one job for the commission is to change the culture, change the way of looking at things, and then we can look at what kinds of things we can do to the educational process."
Although NAVMEC is still in the early stages of its work, Dr. Osburn expects the consortium's report will be only a start and that NAVMEC, or some other group, will have to shepherd along the implementation process. "If it's not NAVMEC, then there will be a need for a coalition to see this through," he said. "It will require more than the veterinary colleges to do this. It's going to require the entire profession."