Think tank reacts to KPMG study

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In the first university-based think tank convened about the release of the KPMG market study in July 1999, officials from the AVMA, the American Animal Hospital Association, and the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges joined several dozen educators and private practitioners at the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine in Blacksburg, Va, on Nov 3 to begin discussing strategies for change.

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The need for "cultural change" in the profession is discussed at Virginia-Maryland.

The daylong meeting featured remarks from educators, private practitioners, and leaders from organized veterinary medicine. They addressed the economic threats facing the veterinary profession from a variety of perspectives. Many of the remarks focused on how communication and business training can be inserted into veterinary college curricula already overwhelmed by an ever-expanding body of knowledge.

Dr. Peter Eyre, dean of the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine, outlined the need for the various sectors of the profession to develop a unified approach to problems such as skyrocketing student debt, low practitioner salaries, lack of market development, and other challenges that were identified in the KPMG study. "The colleges must change," Dean Eyre said, "but without the outside support, I don't think we can do very much."

Challenging the audience to reflect on the definition of the word education, Dean Eyre posed a central question: "Our students are well trained in the biomedical sciences. How can we help them acquire the vital people skills which will help them understand that veterinary medicine is also a business?"

Suggesting that the "product" of a university is a changed human being, he offered a profile of the successful recent veterinary college graduate of the future. Dean Eyre said their attributes would include proficiency in the science and technology of the profession, and business management and interpersonal, group, and public communications skills.

Terming the current situation "untenable," Dean Eyre said "steeply rising educational costs without obvious improvements in quality or suitability of graduates will be challenged." He suggested that academe must "stop looking only at ourselves and talking only to ourselves and look to society's needs in order to improve educational outcomes and secure public trust."

Dr. Peggy Rucker, the immediate past president of the AAHA and a member of the AVMA/AAHA/AAVMC Joint Steering Committee, declared that "the profession is at a crossroads."

"The changes that are happening around us can no longer be ignored," said Dr. Rucker, a private practitioner from Russell County, Virginia. The profession's ability to attract the brightest and the best is in jeopardy as a result of salary stagnation and debt load, she said.

A perspective on veterinary college curricula was offered by Dr. Scott Stahl, an exotic animal veterinarian from northern Virginia. He commended his alma mater for offering him an outstanding scientific education but acknowledged deficits in such areas as how to effectively manage work teams in a business environment and how to deal with people in a variety of communication arenas. Dr. Stahl suggested that all veterinarians could benefit from having an improved sense of self worth and be more proficient at "selling themselves" in the marketplace. He would prefer to hire a good veterinarian with excellent communication skills over an excellent veterinarian with poor communication skills.

A bare-knuckled presentation on the vexing realities of curricular reform was offered by Dr. Tom Bailey, a former private practitioner and current associate professor in Virginia-Maryland's Department of Large Animal Clinical Sciences. Concurring with the base premise that veterinarians could benefit from improved business and communication skills, Dr. Bailey asked the group whether more care should be given during the admissions process to selecting students who possess these traits.

Dr. Bailey also wondered how a student's communication skills can truly be evaluated in an admissions process that is inherently structured on evaluating students on empirical attributes [eg, course work and standardized testing rather than interviews]. The profession seems to want graduates with good medical, surgical, business, and communication skills, Dr. Bailey said, but even if curricular change were enacted to produce that sort of graduate, would the profession adequately compensate them?

Practice management consultant Dr. Bob Brown of Cherrydale Veterinary Clinic in northern Virginia then summarized the urgency with which he believes the profession must act to safeguard its future. He suggested the magnitude and the implications of the looming economic problems have been underestimated. The profession should develop a clear profile of the desired veterinary college graduate and the starting salary, Dr. Brown said, then determine what must be done in the educational process to create that "product." He also suggested that organized veterinary medicine could do more on the demand side of the equation. "There is no other profession in America that has as much potential as this one, but we have to do something now."

During afternoon discussions, Dean Eyre articulated five ways in which the schools could produce graduates who possess greater business and communication skills. He indicated that the admissions and selection processes could be examined and possibly changed to favor students who possess aptitude and undergraduate training in areas that would elevate core communication and business competencies. A veterinary student orientation process could be implemented to provide professional communication and business training. Extracurricular programs could be created to provide similar training for students outside the formal veterinary professional curriculum. A more formalized mentoring program with mentors internal and external to the colleges could be established to help students develop greater understanding and competence with the communicative and business dimensions of practicing clinical veterinary medicine. Finally, Dr. Eyre suggested the curriculum could be restructured to include formal training in business and communication.

Dr. Joanne Howl, president of the Maryland VMA, stated that the present economic and lifestyle pressures of practicing veterinary medicine are affecting satisfaction to a point where some women are evaluating whether the time demands and diminished financial rewards are worth the effort.

Dr. Don Barber, head of the Virginia-Maryland Department of Small Animal Clinical Sciences, said it would be difficult to make significant curricular additions including enhanced business and communication training until limited licensure evolves in the profession. The explosion of knowledge in the biomedical and clinical sciences proceeds unabated, yet the profession and licensing bodies expect a graduate to be "all things to all people."

Veterinary colleges tend to teach as though students will practice all facets of the profession, according to Dr. Barber, although most colleges realize they will not. Dr. Barber said it is already impossible to teach veterinary students adequate depth within certain sectors, and a natural concentration must eventually emerge to make room in the veterinary curriculum for more communication and business training.

Dr. Frank Pearsall, development director at the college, stated there might be an "attitudinal disconnect" between students and faculty members in a mentoring relationship because faculty members have an academic orientation as opposed to a private practice orientation. He suggested that communication and business training might be enacted through some sort of veterinary student extracollegiate mentor. Dr. Pearsall later suggested that a practice management clerkship could, in fact, be undertaken prior to the traditional fourth year of training.

Dr. Greg Hammer, AVMA Executive Board member, said that as an employer, he highly values recent veterinary graduates with excellent communication skills and would like to see that message filter down to veterinary college faculty members. Dr. Hammer acknowledged the need for a unified and systemic approach to resolving the profession's problems. "If we're not willing to help improve it, then [we need to] quit pointing the fingers at the schools."

Dean Eyre said that what was being discussed was an excellent start but would mean enormous "cultural change" within academe.

Dr. Brown expanded on this idea, saying that what needs to be done is actually a major cultural change within the profession, and it is imperative to move quickly or the entire profession of veterinary medicine could become "pawns of business."

The executive director of the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges, Dr. Curt Mann commended Virginia-Maryland for hosting the symposium and praised Dean Eyre as a progressive thinker in this regard. He remarked on the power of all the outside forces coming to bear on the profession and said the profession must "wake up" at all levels. "This profession is at risk," he said, and because veterinary colleges are the "crucible" of the profession, they must be leaders in enacting change.

Jeffrey S. Douglas, public relations director at Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine, provided the accompanying account of the KPMG "reaction retreat." As a participant, he provided his own comments to the think tank. He suggested that, although most of the veterinary college effort focuses on the supply side of the equation, it is important to note the colleges are also involved in the demand side of the equation. Douglas said many colleges have hired public relations directors over the past five years, and a national organization called the Association of Veterinary Advancement Professionals has been established for development, public relations, and alumni relations officers in veterinary academe. Improved communication training for veterinarians would better prepare them to serve as ambassadors for the profession in a variety of communication environments, Douglas said.