Dr. Joe M. Howell is one of those candidates who are driven by a cause to run for office rather than by a vague notion of service.
Dr. Joe M. Howell
The Oklahoma veterinarian, running uncontested in the House of Delegates election July 13, aspires to be next on the AVMA presidential relay team to carry forward with programs to cure the profession's economic ills. Dr. Howell and current president-elect, Dr. Jim Brandt, are committed to advancing the initiatives of AVMA president, Dr. Jim Nave, who chairs the National Commission on Veterinary Economic Issues and co-initiated the Mentorship Program Subcommittee.
Dr. Howell, who was nominated by the Oklahoma, Missouri, and Kansas VMAs, was at AVMA headquarters in early April to sit in on the Executive Board meeting. It was a familiar experience for Dr. Howell, who served on the board from 1998-2000.
His campaign year has given him many memorable moments as he traveled to the eight regional meetings where the AVMA campaign rules allow candidates to speak.
"Most memorable overall was meeting people from different regions of the country and finding we have a similar interest in raising the economic base of this profession," Dr. Howell said.
"What struck me is that the AVMA has had an influence in beginning the dialogue about economic issues to where it's rippled clear to the local level of our profession."
His strong convictions about the economic initiative and mentoring program led him to take time away from his practice and other business interests to run for office.
"There will be a time to bring this to fruition, and it should be during my term as president. That's one of the main reasons that I'm running."
Pet owners are willing to pay more for veterinary services if they perceive more value, according to most studies and surveys, Dr. Howell noted. It will be up to organized veterinary medicine to raise the public's perception of value.
The more daunting challenge, in his estimation, is bringing veterinarians to accept the need for higher fees.
"We need to raise our economic base not only so that we can enjoy a standard of living that's in parity with other medical professions, but also so that we can deliver state-of-the-art technology for our patients," Dr. Howell said.
"Practice income affects our entire profession. It determines recent graduates' ability to repay their loans as well as veterinary technicians' salaries. Many times, the beginning salary of veterinarians in practice is a benchmark for veterinarians in industry, education, and other sectors."
There is an end point, he said, to how long the finest students can continue to afford veterinary school, given the exorbitant debt load and disappointing beginning salaries.
Veterinary technicians should actually be earning what new veterinary graduates currently are paid, and the veterinarians' salaries should be proportionately higher, Dr. Howell said.
His entrepreneurial experience gives him a strong grasp of how to approach the type of business decisions that will be part of the economic initiative. Dr. Howell has co-owned a small animal practice in Oklahoma City for 25 years. His investment company owns or has owned other veterinary hospitals, a cattle farming operation, a banking enterprise, and several franchise businesses.
"Success isn't always knowing exactly what to do. A lot of times it's knowing things not to do. I wouldn't profess to know all the things veterinarians should do," Dr. Howell said, "but there are general business principles that veterinarians should understand. Whether we like it or not, we are small-business people."
Practice ownership has also given him insights into mentoring—helping veterinarians who are in a beginning situation to become confident and move to the next level. Dr. Howell believes the AVMA can provide a great service by designing mentorship models or specific mentoring programs.
He envisions a positive mentoring program that is multilevel, from students taking preveterinary courses to veterinarians nearing retirement.
Another type of mentoring cultivates leaders in organized veterinary medicine. In this sense, Dr. Howell said Dr. Nave is his mentor.
"Maybe it's my business background—I know that when you have worthwhile projects of this magnitude and importance, natural progressions and follow-through are critical. That's why I hope to follow up Drs. Nave and Brandt on the things they've begun, and see them through to completion.
"If other things are spawned in my time as president, I would hope to mentor somebody following me to follow through on them."
As to why the gender shift seen in veterinary schools and practices has not filtered as visibly to organized veterinary medicine, Dr. Howell believes the answer is simple: new graduates are busy developing their skills and practices and initially don't have the time to seek leadership positions. But more and more women are getting involved in leadership, especially in their states and localities.
"I am a strong believer that the male leadership should understand women's issues, and women leadership should understand male issues," Dr. Howell said. "We're headed down the wrong path if we have the mindset that a leader represents one faction of our organization or another faction."
Dr. Howell is known for approaching AVMA initiatives by asking whether they would benefit members. What about the proposed restructuring of Executive Board districts, which would reorganize his own District VII?
"This will lead to a more representative system," he said. "Our leaders have come up with a masterful plan to accommodate three factors: that we need to have an equal number of veterinarians in each district, an equal number of veterinary schools in each district, and an equal number of states for each board member."
And the proposed membership dues increase? He views that as "a minor investment for which our members should see a manyfold return."
Dr. Howell cites an example. "The value of your diploma from an AVMA-accredited school is part of the value you're getting from your AVMA involvement. Having our Council on Education keep those standards the highest in the world gives value to the diploma that's hanging on your wall."
To retreat on those standards would, he said, devalue the diploma, so he advocates committing the resources necessary to maintain the AVMA standards.
Yet, Dr. Howell is optimistic about the exchange of accreditation information between the United States and Mexico. "If Mexico has schools with accreditation standards equal to the AVMA's, I feel good about working with them," he said. "The talks also offer a benchmark for schools that have lower standards."
He also sees the progress in arranging access to foreign licensure for graduates of AVMA-accredited schools—much of it achieved under Dr. Nave's presidency—as a tremendous asset.
Legislative advocacy and alliance building are high on Dr. Howell's list. In the late 1980s he was influential in convincing the Oklahoma VMA to engage a lobbyist and form a legislative committee. He was a founder of the OVMA political action committee.
"We have a very strong lobbyist and legislative system and have been able to pass a rabies law, define what chiropractors can and cannot do, and to legislatively help our situation in other ways which, before, we were not able to do," he said.
His political savvy as a campaign chairman has won his candidates a gubernatorial party nomination, a seat in the state legislature, and two mayoral races.
Dr. Howell is former president of the Oklahoma State Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners and the Oklahoma County VMA. For 12 years he served on the Oklahoma VMA executive board, and he has chaired the OVMA Legislative and Long-Range Planning committees. The 1972 Oklahoma State University graduate chaired his alma mater's Bring Dreams to Life Campaign.
Although Dr. Howell had represented Oklahoma as alternate delegate to the AVMA from 1994-1998, serving on the Executive Board was a revelation for him. "Frankly, I was probably like a lot of other members in not realizing the amount of resources expended on behalf of veterinarians, and the influence that organized veterinary medicine can actually have.
"As AVMA president-elect and president I hope to make members more aware of the value of what we're doing. This is a huge resource with a $17 million budget. More than 300 veterinarian and public volunteers serve on AVMA entities such as councils and committees, and our staff numbers over a hundred. Many of these people are top experts in their fields. And they're all working on our behalf."
Interview by Susan C. Kahler