The AVMA Group Health and Life Insurance Trust, as part of its longstanding commitment to wellness, was a sponsor and attendee of the second annual Veterinary Leadership Experience, held June 1-5 in Spokane, Wash., and Ross Point, Idaho.
AVMA GHLIT trustees Drs. Jody Johnson and Ted Trimmer participated in the program, along with professors and students representing all 34 U.S., Canadian, and Caribbean veterinary colleges.
The program, modeled after the orientation camp designed for veterinary students at Washington State University, has expanded to a national audience in the hopes of encouraging wider-reaching personal transformations that will positively impact the entire profession.
Dr. Trimmer was impressed with the camaraderie and enthusiasm for the profession he observed among student participants at the VLE.
"Students today have more academic pressure on them," Dr. Trimmer said. "They have a tremendous amount of information to absorb. Getting started this way—more of a preventive approach rather than treatment later—is a great idea."
The VLE stresses the importance and relevance of balancing medical and surgical competencies with important life skills such as collaboration, personal leadership, and emotional intelligence. Dr. Johnson agrees that this is a positive direction for veterinarians.
"I am seeing a lot of burnout among my colleagues when they reach their late 40s and early 50s," Dr. Johnson said. "We also know that many veterinarians feel they need some medical support for anxiety, panic attacks, or depression. In fact, antidepressants are a major cost to the AVMA GHLIT."
Dr. Richard DeBowes, department chair of Washington State University College of Veterinary Medicine, said the emphasis on wellness is a key reason there is such an incredible match between VLE and AVMA GHLIT.
"The AVMA GHLIT has a good idea of the cost of the lack of personal leadership in the profession," Dr. DeBowes said. "They see the cost in claims when a veterinarian is working hard and leading an unbalanced life.
"We're trying to bring about a subtle change in the professional who's always done well in taking care of animals. It's important we also take care of ourselves along the way."
The VLE curriculum is intended to empower students to take responsibility over their preferred future. Student attendee Staci Murphy, a representative of the University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine, found the experience to be unlike any other leadership program she had participated in previously.
"They instilled this amazing sense of responsibility in us," said the second-year student. "The greater impact of the program was to encourage personal transformation. There was a sense of empowerment to play a bigger role in the veterinary community."
Murphy hopes to sell the VLE concept to her college's faculty and administration to improve its orientation program for incoming veterinary students. But she sees the opportunity as more than just a program change.
"I see it as a chance to transform the profession," she said. "Nothing in veterinary medicine is very static. It's important to be able to collaborate with others—to feel comfortable consulting with each other, learning from one another, and asking for help. If successful, this kind of program would bring people from being competitors to being collaborators."
Dr. Johnson agreed. "I'd like to see veterinarians being a lot more cohesive and less competitive. We should be able to call on another veterinarian with a problem or a question, and not view them as a threat to business, but rather as an ally. We should be able to draw upon each other's expertise without fear."
As student and faculty participants returned to their respective colleges to spread the messages learned at the VLE, Dr. Johnson said the AVMA GHLIT will play a role in supporting their efforts.
"The AVMA GHLIT wants to take this program down to the school level. We'll be supporting programs based on the VLE model at each school, offering our financial support so they can provide experienced facilitators," Dr. Johnson said.
She anticipates that the model will find support among female and male students.
"We've been seeing the rise of issues that are probably more generational, not just a reflection of gender," Dr. Johnson said. "It may not even be conscious. But younger veterinarians are much more willing to say, 'I want this career because it makes me happy.'"
Travis McDermott, a student at Texas A&M University College of Veterinary Medicine and president of the Student AVMA, may be a perfect example of this new generation of veterinarians.
"A lot of us younger veterinarians want to work hard, but we also want to make time for ourselves," McDermott said. "Some may see it as a weakness, but I see it as a strength."
McDermott referred to studies that indicate veterinarians who take time off are more productive and, in turn, earn more for their clinics.
"I have to keep a part of my life out of veterinary school and not let it consume me," McDermott said. "I think in the long run we could see our generation become even more productive, more efficient."
Transforming the profession and beyond is also on the mind of Dr. Charles Hendrix, newly announced candidate for AVMA vice president in 2006. He is a professor of parasitology at Auburn University and longtime student advocate. Dr. Hendrix attended this year's VLE to learn more about the profession's student leaders.
"Veterinarians need a social outlet," he insisted. "Your practice is your vocation; you need an avocation. If you do veterinary medicine 24/7/52, you will implode!"
"I think it's important young people know how to take care of themselves," Dr. Hendrix said. "You've got to make spiritual time, physical time. You've got to eat right. There needs to be balance in your life."
Dr. Hendrix's advice mirrors many of the suggestions the AVMA GHLIT has long provided to members. The trust realizes the importance of a balanced life and recently enhanced the Wellness Benefit of some of the GHLIT medical plans to encourage participants to lead a healthy lifestyle.
The ability to participate in the AVMA GHLIT is an important benefit available to AVMA members. For more information, call (800) 621-6360 or visit www.avmaghlit.org.