2010 Summit of Canadian Veterinary Leaders

July 7, 2010

Thank you colleagues, friends and guests. It's an honor and a privilege to gather with you today. On behalf of the American Veterinary Medical Association, with its more than 80,000 members, and the American Olympic hockey team, I want to thank you for this opportunity.

We're gathered here to focus on today's practice environment – where we are and where we are going. And I've got to tell you that the veterinary practice I see today is one I couldn't have imagined when I graduated from school more than four decades ago and started my companion animal practice.

In 1966, I thought we'd seen it all. After all, we were starting to use electron microscopes. Lasers were being introduced into the surgical suite. And the first open-heart surgery had been performed on a dog using a heart-lung machine.

We were making great strides in the fight against rabies in dogs. Comparative medicine had gone from being a concept to becoming a reality. And we were beginning to establish centers for zoonoses research.

I looked around my new, little practice, and the words of Charles Duell, a fella that was the commissioner of the United States Patent and Trademark Office in 1899, came to mind, "Everything that can be invented, has been invented."

Turns out we were both wrong.

Both of us underestimated the ingenuity and inventiveness of the generations of scientists and visionaries that would follow us. And both of us failed to foresee the demands that society would place on science and technology to provide cutting-edge medicine – not only to people, but to the pets they had moved out of the backyard and into the bedroom.

As a result, today's practice environment looks nothing like the one I opened more than 40 years ago. Let me cite a few examples:

  • Brain cancer treatments through stereotactic radiosurgery.
  • Heart valve surgeries with the help of balloon-tipped catheters and 64-slice CT scanners.
  • Computer-based surgical navigation that guides us through a total knee replacement.
  • CT scans for pet geckos – yes, geckos – being treated for hyperthyroidism.

It's safe to say that the sky's the limit when it comes to what you and I can do in private veterinary practice today.

These advancements, combined with an evolution in the profession, have also resulted in changes to the education our veterinary students receive and the overall make-up of our veterinary workforce.

Take a look at the graduates from the 28 accredited colleges and schools of veterinary medicine in the United States. AVMA surveys indicate that we are experiencing a growing trend in veterinary graduates seeking advanced study after they earn their veterinary degree.

Our most recent survey indicates that more and more graduating seniors are choosing advanced study – largely in the form of internships – instead of immediately entering the profession. This can be partly attributed to veterinary graduates' desire to be better prepared when they do enter the demanding practice setting. Their desire to be the best they can be is heartening on one level. But the fact that they feel unprepared is disconcerting at the same time. Are they just striving to be better, or are we failing to provide them with enough hands-on experience in school and, as practice owners, with enough mentoring once they graduate and enter the workforce? It's a question that needs to be answered if we are going to meet their needs and ensure a coming generation of skilled, confident professionals.

Let's look at the growing field of veterinary specialists. Our latest data on the number of veterinarians who have achieved diplomate status in the 20 specialist groups recognized by the AVMA, shows that diplomates now total about 10,000, a more than 15 percent increase since 2006. The number of specialists in the internal medicine specialty, for example, went up by more than 11 percent in just one year.

This increase once again points to the advancements we're making as a profession and the ever-increasing strength we're seeing in the human-animal bond. We as veterinarians are being asked by pet owners to provide increasingly advanced treatments. And this expectation is driving more veterinarians into specialties like internal medicine, neurology and oncology.

Like human medicine, many of our brightest graduates are gravitating toward advanced degrees and specialties that will satisfy their intellectual curiosity and provide a higher income. But, as in human medicine, we have got to figure out where we are going to get our general practitioners. Who will be providing the rabies vaccine and treating the ear infection? Just who will be expressing all those anal glands? And will they be veterinarians?

Technology changes are having a huge impact on how we learn and communicate in our practices and with our clients. And these changes only underscore how we differ in styles when it comes to different generations.

I want eye-to-eye contact when we discuss the dog in post-op. My associate thinks we can cover everything in 140 characters. I'm thinking I briefly see a patient and then proceed with the solution, and my client shows up with 50 pages of information gleaned from the Internet.

Quite often I have to remind myself that sometimes it's the 30-year-old who knows more about the topic than I do – that just because I'm older does not necessarily mean I'm the best one to be in charge – and that either I figure out what Webinars and Twitter and You Tube and Flicker are, or I'm not going to be able to take part in the conversation.

And we need to recognize that our client demographics are drastically changing, too. The AVMA, much like the CVMA, has members who are 84 and members who are 24, and the same goes for our clients.

And this younger generation is looking to things like Twitter, Flicker, Facebook and You Tube for social connections, information and knowledge. That's why the AVMA – probably much like the CVMA – has kept its traditional communications channels but has upped its efforts on social networking sites. We post videos on AVMA TV and You Tube, we tweet on Twitter – try to say that 10 times real fast. We post on our Facebook page. All because we know – for better or for worse – that many younger folks rely on the Web for their information.

Today's graduates understand the concept of work-life balance and demand that it be a part of the discussion. Many of today's graduates have traveled extensively, have Facebook mentors that live and work on the other side of the world, and are considering practice areas that you and I didn't know exist.

Now don't get me wrong. Even though I may think that backing up my computer means putting it in reverse, I'm not against change. I believe Charles Darwin was right when he said, "It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change." As change happens, we need to find ways to adapt that will enhance our commitment to serve both animals and society.

So what does all this mean? To paraphrase John F. Kennedy, it means that we as a profession have to move very fast – to even stand still.

You and I – practice owners, associates and other members of the veterinary practice team – have a vested interest in our schools, in our new graduates, in the regulations and legislation guiding the veterinary profession and in meeting ever-increasing client expectations and patient needs.

You and I have to stay vigilant in our efforts to diversify our profession – both by race and gender – if we are to best serve the changing face of our communities.

And finally, you and I must remain active in organized veterinary medicine, and must voice our opinions and offer our expertise, if this profession is to remain sustainable, cutting-edge and of optimal value not only to pet owners, but to society as a whole.

Yes, much has changed since I entered practice some 40 years ago, and much more will change over the next few decades. The road ahead promises a journey that's even more exciting. Let's welcome it with open arms. But let's remember that it's up to us to consider and make changes that will reflect the fact that veterinary medicine is one of the most admired professions in the world for very solid reasons.

For as author Steven Covey said, "The key to the ability to change is a changeless sense of who you are, what you are about, and what you value." If we can follow that advice, I'm confident that the practice of veterinary medicine will continue to change – for the better.

Thank you