Veterinarians, public health professionals break down silos

Symposium fuels collaboration between veterinary colleges, public health schools
Published on June 15, 2007
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While veterinarians and public health professionals have crossed paths for years, a meeting in April brought together—for the first time officially—faculty and students from the colleges of veterinary medicine and the schools of public health. The goal of the meeting was to increase collaboration between the two professions in the areas of education, workforce training, and research.

The Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges and the Association of Schools of Public Health sponsored the event, which attracted more than 240 participants. Along with faculty and students from each profession, government leaders and professionals from relevant associations were in attendance.

Dr. Michael J. Blackwell, dean of the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine, and John Finnegan, PhD, dean of the University of Minnesota School of Public Health, chaired the symposium.

"Folks, we've got a lot on our plates as a veterinary profession and as a public health profession," Dr. Blackwell said. "If we don't get it right, if we don't learn to work better together, we will fail society. We will fail the world. That is not an overstatement."

Dr. Blackwell said that the two professions need to break down the silos between them and gave the recent national pet food recall as just one example of how the need for collaboration has never been greater. Once the ingredients that contaminated the pet food spread into the human food chain, the recall became a public health issue, in addition to a veterinary medical issue.

In recent years, the two professions have made strides in working more closely together. One example was illustrated during a panel on the challenges of operating joint DVM/MPH degree programs.

"We have moved from a position where, in 2001, there were probably 25 veterinarians and veterinary students in total pursuing advanced public health programs, to today, where there are at least 250 veterinary students and veterinarians enrolled," said Dr. William D. Hueston, who moderated the panel. Dr. Hueston is the director of the Center for Animal Health and Food Safety at the University of Minnesota.

Federal agencies have also provided a platform for the two professions to work together. Some of the top employers of veterinarians in public health are two agencies of the Department of Agriculture—the Food Safety and Inspection Service and the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service—and the Department of Defense. A number of these government agencies were on hand at the conference to review their public health initiatives and how veterinarians make an impact.

Although the two professions have made progress toward increased collaboration, a number of sessions pointed to the need for an even stronger partnership—and especially for more veterinarians to pursue public health.

"It is eye-opening (to know) that we have fewer veterinarians in the public sector and animal health resources today than we did comparatively in 1929 with the successful eradication of foot-and-mouth disease," said Dr. W. Ron DeHaven, administrator of the USDA-APHIS, during a panel on the priorities of federal agencies.

"In spite of the need, the public sector suffers from a serious shortage of veterinarians and animal health officials," Dr. DeHaven said. "In fact, we estimate that we have 3,000 to 6,000 fewer veterinarians in the public sector than what would be needed if we had to respond to a major agricultural animal health emergency."

Workforce issues were also discussed during a panel featuring representatives from the AVMA and the American Public Health Association.

Dr. Roger K. Mahr, AVMA president, was on hand to report on the Association's initiatives. He noted that the AVMA recently established a One Health Initiative Task Force, which will articulate a vision of one health that will enhance the integration of animal, human, and environmental health for the mutual benefit of all.

"As veterinarians, collaborating and cooperating with our colleagues in human medicine, public health, and the environmental sciences is imperative," Dr. Mahr said. He underscored the relevance of the one-health concept by noting that 75 percent of the diseases that have emerged in the past 25 years are zoonotic.

Georges Benjamin, MD, executive director of the APHA, reviewed that association's activities toward ensuring an adequate public health workforce for the future.

"The challenge we have ... is that over half of the public health workforce is going to retire any day now," Dr. Benjamin said.

Rebuilding scholarship and leadership development programs and developing minors in public health in undergraduate programs are a few of the association's initiatives to rebuild the workforce. Dr. Benjamin said the APHA is also trying to engage sixth- and seventh-grade students to become more interested in public health.

Keynote presenter Dr. Lonnie J. King discussed the one-health concept and his role as director of the National Center for Zoonotic, Vector-Borne, and Enteric Diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"We have to learn from the past, broaden our participation and views, create new skills ... (and) understand that this convergence is also about vision and leadership," he said. "The greatest asset in the 21st century is collaboration."

Other keynote presenters included Rear Adm. Kenneth P. Moritsugu, MD, acting surgeon general, and David Satcher, MD, former surgeon general.

"The joint symposium on veterinary public health is just the first step of what we hope will become a long-term relationship between AAVMC and ASPH," said Dr. Andrew Maccabe, associate executive director of AAVMC, after the event. "The veterinary medical colleges look forward to working with the schools of public health on a broad range of issues in the future."

Plenary sessions from the symposium, which was titled "Partnerships for preparedness: future directions for schools of public health and colleges of veterinary medicine," will be published in early 2008 in the Journal of Veterinary Medical Education and in Public Health Reports, the journal of the U.S. Public Health Service, marking the first time the two journals have jointly published.

A full summary of the meeting is available online at the ASPH Web site.