Practitioner's perspective aids new AAHA president

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Interview by R. Scott Nolen

Looking back over a career spanning nearly three decades as a companion animal practitioner, punctuated by service in organized veterinary medicine, Dr. Thomas J. Cusick sees his term as 2000-2001 president of the AAHA as part of an evolutionary process.

A self-described "grassroots" veterinarian, Dr. Cusick owns the Watertown Animal Hospital, a small animal practice in Watertown, Mass, where he is the sole practitioner with an interest in ophthalmology and dentistry. He told JAVMA News that it's his ongoing connection to the practice of animal medicine that enables him to identify with the AAHA membership.

After graduating from The Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine in 1973 and later owning his own practice, Dr. Cusick wanted to give something back to the profession. "Being involved in companion animal medicine, it seemed like the right place to be was AAHA."

Dr. Thomas J. Cusick, AAHA President
Dr. Thomas J. Cusick, AAHA President

He began his career in the AAHA leadership in 1980 as an area director and served until 1992, then became regional coordinator from 1989-1992. He joined the board of directors as the Northeast region director in 1992, later going on to hold the office of vice president.

Dr. Cusick took on more responsibility as his schedule allowed. When he felt he had enough experience with the AAHA, and that the time was right, Dr. Cusick decided to seek the presidency. Dr. Cusick assumed that role in April during the association's annual meeting.

When it comes to change, Dr. Cusick said he is conservative, yet he understands the necessity for the profession to adapt with the times. "The history of veterinary medicine is just that: history. It's not today; it's not tomorrow. If you're going to live for that, then you're going to be a very frustrated person."

It is Dr. Cusick's opinion that one of the greatest threats to the profession is the pervasive "missionary" attitude that compels veterinarians to undercharge for their services. This destructive practice not only jeopardizes the quality of care veterinarians offer, but also might drive talented individuals away from veterinary medicine to better-paying careers.

He hopes the National Commission on Veterinary Economic Issues, of which the AAHA is one of three founding members, will bring about what he believes are needed improvements to the "business" of veterinary medicine. That the problems facing the profession could unite the AAHA, AVMA, and Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges with a single mandate is cause for encouragement, but Dr. Cusick believes the greatest hurdle to the commission's success is the apathy of veterinarians themselves.

"The most frightening thing is to have veterinarians say, 'Yes, I know I'm not making enough money; yes, I know I could probably be making a better salary, but that's okay.' To say that, to me, is an indication of future risks and repercussions."

One of the early outcomes of the Megastudy, the economic analysis of the US veterinary profession that was the catalyst for the national commission, is the recent addition of the practice team category to the AAHA's membership.

Veterinarians, the study concluded, must become more efficient in how they offer their services. By way of response, the AAHA created a new membership category where every member of a practice, from office personnel to practice owners, is consolidated into a team. After meeting certain standards, the team is accredited by the association.

Dr. Cusick said the success of the practice teams is his and the AAHA board of directors' number one priority. "Our feeling is that practice teams are going to enable veterinarians to accomplish things more effectively."

The practice team category follows two other recent membership additions in the AAHA, one for veterinary technicians, which, in less than a year since its creation, has approximately 900 members; the other for hospital managers, a category that has grown to more than 1,000 members.

A second priority for Dr. Cusick is promoting Marketlink, the buying program available free to AAHA members. The service allows access to more than 12,000 discounted drugs and supplies. Nearly two years old, the program is intended to "level the playing field" between small veterinary practices that lack the buying power of large practices.