A practitioner's academician

Spire leads AABP
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Dr. Mark Spire, president of the American Association of Bovine PractitionersBeef cattle practice was a natural choice for Dr. Mark Spire, president of the American Association of Bovine Practitioners. Raised on a farm in Oklahoma, he earned his DVM degree from Texas A&M University in 1974. Then, he entered the Army. As post veterinarian at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., he enjoyed doing food animal work at the military prison farm. Realizing there were few food animal practitioners, he chose that path. "I enjoy food animals, I enjoy the environment, I enjoy working with the cattle—and the beef side of it has been interesting," he said.

Kansas State University was where he found his calling to the beef cattle side. For one thing, Riley County, which the College of Veterinary Medicine serves, had 27 dairies when Dr. Spire joined the Department of Clinical Sciences faculty in 1976. Now, there are only two. Dr. Spire was also swayed by the potential for professional development, and by Kansas' status as the nation's number two cattle and number one beef stocker state.

In 1978, he received his master of science, and he's remained at K-State ever since. Until 2000, Dr. Spire was a professor in the Department of Clinical Sciences and for five years, he held the W.S. and E.C. Jones Trust Chair for Cow/Calf Production Medicine. Then, he spent two years as a professor in the Department of Diagnostic Medicine and Pathobiology. Currently he is assistant director of the Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory.

"A lot of people get lockstepped in academia—they're an 'ologist of some type—but I've been able to re-pot myself every six or seven years," Dr. Spire said.

As a general practitioner, he developed embryo transfer services to meet the demand from clients and veterinarians. To share that expertise, he set up graduate training and a CE program for veterinarians. He became a diplomate of the American College of Theriogenologists.

At the same time, Dr. Spire was creating production management and reproduction programs for beef herds, adapting record systems and working with integrated resource management. Again, he strived to create a program that was successful in the application, and arranged CE and graduate training programs.

"At K-State," Dr. Spire said, "we work with ranchers to try things out so we can then direct the information back into a CE program, and write about it, or create a research base to validate what we found."

Moving into administration, he helped form an applied research center, K-State's Food Animal Health and Management Center, in 1995. "We went from a research center with zero funding to one where this year, our faculty are involved in more than $4 million in funded program projects," Dr. Spire noted. Faculty have advanced into disease surveillance systems within pathway analysis, supply chain management, and telemedicine. Remote sensing is an area Dr. Spire, a level II thermographer, has cultivated. Using infrared cameras, he can monitor animals' energy loss to predict problems.

Re-potting himself again, Dr. Spire acquired the title of assistant director of the Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory in 2001. This gave him an opportunity to develop information systems for practitioners via the laboratory's outreach program. He helped create a complex, Internet-based system called the Rapid Syndromic Validation Project-Animals. Based on a human prototype, the RSVP-A is a joint project between K-State; Sandia National Laboratories, Albuquerque, N.M.; the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service; and the Kansas Animal Health Department.

"With RSVP-A, data from practitioners go into a central database, where we look at the occurrence of syndromes in our surveillance area and link our diagnostic and epidemiologic information back to those veterinarians," Dr. Spire explained.

As a recent graduate, Dr. Spire learned the virtues and merits of AABP from his employer and former AABP president, Dr. Ray Ivie. After his military service, he "saw the light" and joined AABP. At K-State, he was the AABP student chapter adviser for a number of years and is currently a faculty liaison to AABP. Dr. Spire was asked to run for vice president and was elected in 2001, ascending to president-elect last year. He has also served on boards of other veterinary organizations.

Not surprisingly, as an AABP leader, Dr. Spire is focused on providing useful information and venues for practitioners. This guided him as program chair for the Columbus meeting and in his priorities as president over the next year.

"I want one of the hallmarks of my short time in the leadership role to be reaching out to all of our membership," Dr. Spire said. Some members may not find it convenient to read the AABP print publications. Others are unable to attend the annual conference. "With the new distance education, we have an opportunity to provide a different format and more sophisticated course work through asynchronous learning," he said. "I'd like to have this CE set up as independent learning, so a practitioner could devote an hour in the morning or at night or a quiet Sunday afternoon to it."

He wants to look at means to convert CE sessions at the annual conference into online presentations, enabling even AABP members who can't attend to benefit from the excellent speakers. Dr. Spire would also like the AABP to explore the idea of having members go online and take tests to validate articles they've read in AABP publications, for CE credit.

Another priority is ensuring openness of communication among the board of directors, committees, and AABP constituents, he said, especially those who raise issues.

As alternate representative from AABP to the AVMA Legislative Advisory Committee, Dr. Spire said that a major legislative issue bovine practitioners are interested in is health insurance for practice employees. Drug usage issues, such as compounding, remain paramount, and emerging environmental regulations are of high interest.

The shortage of food animal veterinarians and students remains an ongoing concern. Dr. Spire doesn't regard it as a salary issue, because many entry-level, food animal positions pay well. Instead, he sees it as a matter of building strong programs and attracting students.

As a result of the profession's summit on the food animal veterinarian shortage, hosted by K-State in October 2002, KSU initiated a program that's looking into recruitment, admissions, training, and retention of students interested in food animal medicine. Dr. Spire chairs the distance education committee and is excited about an idea raised at the summit. "One of the concepts we're looking at is to make a national food animal university—a virtual university. We see shrinking food animal faculties at most institutions and a lack of mentors, but then, there are nuggets of very talented faculty. Because of them, students who graduate from one college may be outstandingly versed in mastitis or reproduction or environmental issues. A virtual university could tie all the colleges together and provide students with their collective curricular expertise."

The Food Animal Summit Task Force is a coalition comprising the AABP, Academy of Veterinary Consultants, Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges, American Association of Small Ruminant Practitioners, American Association of Swine Veterinarians, and AVMA. It's looking at retention and job placement issues for veterinary students. Dr. Spire chaired the committee that issued a request for proposals for a comprehensive research study of issues affecting food supply veterinary medicine.

Salary may not be the central issue, but locale has a strong bearing on veterinary economics and shortages, he said. Across the multitude of professions and occupations, there is a disparity between those working in the higher-paying city and those in rural areas, and more people want to work in the city. "What we see as a trend is that rural America is going to get served not by individual practitioners, but by regional specialty clinics," Dr. Spire said. "Equine, food animal, and small animal practitioners will be associates, sharing buildings, ordering processes, technical support, and equipment."

Dr. Spire notices another entrepreneurial phenomenon. "One of the exciting things we're seeing is practices hiring an animal scientist. All of a sudden, they're working with synchronization programs, offering nutrition programs, doing CE sessions, working on newsletter development—things that you wouldn't traditionally associate with veterinarians.

"These practices are looking at opportunities to make profit centers. That, to me, is the way rural America is going to be. When you start building a practice like that, you change the economic dynamics of the profession and the income that makes it more attractive in rural America."