Carlson seeking second term as AVMA vice president

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As the AVMA's ambassador to veterinary students and administrators this past year, Dr. René A. Carlson has become adept at balancing her vice presidential responsibilities with her family and practice priorities. The Wisconsin VMA will nominate her for a second term as AVMA vice president in July, and she is eager for the opportunity to carry her message and enthusiasm about the profession to students at the second half of the veterinary schools in the coming year.

A 1978 graduate of the University of Minnesota, Dr. Carlson owns a three-veterinarian companion animal practice in Chetek, Wis. In 2001, she was honored as Wisconsin Veterinarian of the Year. Her record of leadership within the AVMA, American Veterinary Medical Foundation, and Wisconsin VMA testify to the importance she places on organized veterinary medicine and tries to instill in future veterinarians. Dr. Carlson has served as president of the Wisconsin VMA and represented the state's veterinarians in the AVMA House of Delegates for eight years, first as alternate delegate and then as delegate. As AVMA vice president, she has a vote on the Executive Board. Dr. Carlson is the only announced candidate for AVMA vice president.

Q:  Has it been challenging to balance your travel to the veterinary schools with the responsibilities of owning a practice?

A:  It's not as overwhelming as I was concerned it might be. My husband, Mark, is very understanding of me being gone. My practice runs well without me because of my two very supportive and flexible associates and my excellent support staff. I started the practice nine years ago and was the only one there for three years, with a scant staff. A few painful lessons taught me a lot about the value of delegation. My other challenge is still being able to take my share of Saturdays and emergency duty when I am in town. I also still see patients most Mondays and Fridays. Managing the schedule can be a bit challenging, but I feel it gives me greater credibility with the students when I can relate true-life stories about practice.

Q:  Have you reprioritized any issues or changed the message you present during your visits to the student chapters?

A:  My message when I started visiting the schools was, number one, have as good an experience as you can after graduation—the first one or two years are your most vulnerable. The second message was the importance of human relations skills for relating to clients, co-workers, and employers. Third was the value of organized veterinary medicine. Those are the three things that have played a part in me loving veterinary medicine. The feedback from my presentations has been very positive.

As I've been around for a year, talking with students and administration and faculty, I've had a few eye-openers. I'm still amazed at the level of education and the dedication students have for becoming a veterinarian—it's so much harder (and more costly) now than it was when I got into school. I'm also amazed at the complexities that veterinary education is facing, with the diminishing legislative support and the need to balance research, clinical service, and teaching and still meet the bottom line.

Q:  Is educational debt still the foremost concern among students and recent graduates? Have any new sources of worry or criticism surfaced?

A:  There's no question that educational debt comes up number one on the students' feedback sheets. Everybody is already aware of it, so I address it briefly in my presentation, as far as scholarships and awards that are available through the Student AVMA, the Auxiliary to the AVMA, and legislative initiatives. It used to be students were worried about debt once they got to their third or fourth year, but now, the anxiety is there instantly after they're accepted into veterinary school. I reassure them that their veterinary education will be a worthwhile, lifelong investment. They are also concerned with how they can "learn it all," find good mentors and jobs where they can learn, and be best prepared for working when they graduate. I encourage them to use the AVMA Mentoring Center to find a supportive mentor.

Q:  One reason you ran for your first term was to help with the transition from "academics to reality." How are you approaching this?

A:  Some of my positive experiences early on were what have made me so excited about veterinary medicine for so long. The most important one for me was a good internship, because that gave me years' worth of confidence in a short time with strong support. Students also have excellent externships available during school. When our hospital has students, they usually want, one, more surgical and dental experience; two, more practice at evaluating a patient, and deciding a diagnostic and treatment plan in an efficient amount of time; and three, advice on practice management skills. I also tell them to make sure they invest in themselves first, especially the first year or two. By that, I mean investing in continuing education in areas where they want more confidence or competence, and learning how to understand the needs of all kinds of people.

Q:  What expressions of optimism do you hear from students and veterinarians?

A:  It's wonderful to see such excitement about being in the profession, but many are emotionally, financially, and physically drained at times. There's so much concern not only about educational debt but also about animal rights pressures and legislative issues, which want to frame the future of veterinary medicine. The future is amazingly bright for veterinary medicine because of the interest people everywhere have in their relationships with animals. But our profession is going through a transition phase. Veterinary medicine has been looked up to as an icon and idol for so long, but now, we have people who are trying to put us on the defensive and media who are painting us as fractioned. In reality, we are people who have been and still are very compassionate and educated advocates for animals.

Q:  As vice president, you have a vote on the Executive Board. What achievements as a board member are you most proud of?

A:  My biggest challenge when I contemplated this position involved how I would handle my Executive Board responsibilities. In the three meetings I've attended as a voting member, I'm proud that I was well-prepared and my voice was heard.

I'm pleased to be part of the visioning process for the long-term health of the AVMA and our profession. Some examples of current important initiatives are investments in the AVMA building in Washington, D.C., and the Animal Welfare Division. I am extremely proud that the AVMA stepped up to do something through animal agriculture to help the tsunami victims by establishing a partnership with Heifer International. There was some controversy about that—whether we should authorize matching membership dollars for one particular disaster, and the usual balance of authority between the House of Delegates and the Executive Board, but I thought it was a good and noble thing to do. Now that I sit at the Executive Board table and hear the discussions, I think the board tries to do the right thing. It will serve everyone well. Veterinary students are altruistic. They want to help those in need, even when they are so limited in resources.

I felt gratified that the board listened when I talked about the value of the Veterinary Leadership Experience for our students and for our profession as a whole. We asked for the AVMA to invest as a partial sponsor, and the board was willing to do that. I'm hoping it's a stepping-stone to seeing the value of it at a much higher level. The VLE provides a unique opportunity to give students personal growth and awareness skills early in their career. It incorporates things the AVMA and the National Commission on Veterinary Economic Issues say are so important, such as communications skills and leadership service for the profession. The students are very excited about it.

Q:  The Executive Board has adopted an AVMA diversity policy. Should the Association be involved in advancing diversity?

A:  Long-term, it's important that we become more assertive in promoting diversity. It's becoming very public that we're a Caucasian profession. In the next 30 years, our country is going to become composed of half non-Caucasian ethnic groups. We must interest other cultures in this profession to help serve those people.

We need to change the image of veterinary medicine to show it includes much more than companion animal practice. A recent article in the Journal of Veterinary Medical Education contemplated whether the profession would pass "the lifeboat test." If you look at veterinary medicine as primarily companion animal practice, we may not be the people they would put in the lifeboat to save society in a crisis. One thing we can do is emphasize the importance of our role in food production, food safety, and public health. Hopefully, that would also bring more interest from other cultures and more diversity to the profession. In some cultures, there is pressure to go into human medicine if one is pursuing a medical career. Until other ethnic groups see pets as higher priorities and see our role in human health, veterinary medicine won't be a career focus for them. We need to overcome that image by publicizing to all young people how veterinarians safeguard public health and protect people from zoonotic diseases every day, even in practice.

Q:  Are there any other matters you would like to talk about?

A:  I tell the students my biggest fear is that as we become more specialized, we may become more fractioned. We need to continue to work together in this profession with our colleagues—whether in private or public practice, large animal or small animal practice, generalist or specialist—to best meet the needs of animals and society. Don't forget that we are a small and noble profession. If we are dedicated to serving it, it will reward the world and us for many years to come.

In a nutshell, I love being an ambassador for veterinary medicine.