AVMA president-elect candidates make their case

Aspros, Brown explain why they're best-suited to lead the Association
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On July 15, the AVMA House of Delegates will choose between Dr. Douglas G. Aspros of Pound Ridge, N.Y., and Dr. Gary S. Brown of Princeton, W.Va., as the Association's next president-elect. Both candidates are practitioners and small business owners with extensive experience in organized veterinary medicine, including leadership positions within the AVMA. In the following interviews, each candidate explains why he should lead the Association.

Dr. Aspros
Dr. Douglas G. Aspros

It's critical that we continue the progress we've made in transforming AVMA into a modern, strategic, and effective organization. It will be my mission to see AVMA adopt a leadership role—not merely a reactive one— in facing the problems that confront veterinary medicine.


Why are you running for president-elect?

Dr. Aspros responds:

I know it sounds corny, but behind this run is my love of animals and the people who work with them.

I'm deeply committed to veterinary medicine, and I believe that AVMA plays an essential role in safeguarding our profession.

The profession is facing serious threats as we enter our 150th year, and AVMA is one of our most important tools. For too long, we've been complacent and slow to adapt to an external environment characterized by rapid change. AVMA has made significant strides towards becoming a more contemporary organization, but we need to keep up the pace if, in the future, we're to fairly serve our members and the profession.

If elected, what do you want to accomplish?

It's critical that we continue the progress we've made in transforming AVMA into a modern, strategic, and effective organization. It will be my mission to see AVMA adopt a leadership role—not merely a reactive one—in facing the problems that confront veterinary medicine.

What do you see as the AVMA president's role?

Our president needs to be more than a cheerleader for the Association, more than just a booster. The president must be a credible face for the profession in all its complexity and be able to represent AVMA and veterinary medicine—both to our members and the world at large—as a learned, serious, and ethical profession.

What qualifies you for the position?

Experience and perspective.

I grew up in New York City, and my first job was as an upstate dairy farmhand at the age of 16. I was a research assistant at a USDA Agricultural Research Service laboratory through college and have been a companion animal veterinarian and practice owner ever since.

I've been a leader in public health in my county for nearly 25 years and am currently serving as president of the Westchester County Board of Health.

I've served on the board and as president of both my local and state associations. After several years on Cornell's College of Veterinary Medicine Advisory Council, and with a deep interest in veterinary education, I was elected to the AVMA Council on Education. There, I was afforded the opportunity to evaluate, in depth, veterinary educational programs across the county and around the world, from the very oldest to the very newest.

I served for five years as a director of the National Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners, responsible for the licensing examination in the U.S. and Canada and, for the past few years, as a reviewer and item writer for the NAVLE.

Last summer I completed a term as an active and influential member of the AVMA Executive Board. In my capacity as District I representative to the board, I had the opportunity to be a liaison to a long list of councils, committees, and task forces, and attend meetings of both insurance trusts.

I know how AVMA works, and I've been a positive force for change in our organization over the past 10 years. I'm proud of how far we've come in that time, but I'm also focused on where we need to go as an organization.

What distinguishes you from your opponent?

I'm not afraid to speak my mind; I'm not afraid to question the status quo.

I'm innovative but work collaboratively to build consensus.

I'm forceful in my convictions but eager to listen and always prepared to change my mind.

I think AVMA is a great organization, but we need to make it better.

I'm serious about our profession and the responsibilities of leadership. Each president should leave behind an AVMA better prepared to meet the needs of our members while protecting, preserving, and expanding the role of veterinarians in society.

What is your response to criticisms the AVMA is not a member-driven organization and fails to look after member interests?

There are vocal critics of AVMA out there, and we have to recognize that they're not always wrong. Our Association needs to be able to listen and learn, not focus on personalities and circle the wagons when we're attacked.

AVMA isn't some faceless monolith–we've got hundreds of active and engaged volunteers, dozens of veterinarians on our staff, and thousands of volunteer alumni. We don't always get it right, and we need to do a better job at removing the practical barriers to participation, but we're not controlled by anyone else. We are a member-driven organization.

But we need leadership that extends beyond the good-old-boy network if we're to continue to earn our members' confidence, respect, and active participation in the future.

Should the AVMA Council on Education be in the business of accrediting foreign veterinary schools?

It's critical that the United States help, through the COE, set the worldwide standards of veterinary education because, in the end, it's those educational requirements that define what it means to be a veterinarian in the global market.

However, we do need to look critically at the number of new veterinarians entering the profession. While the issue of accreditation of foreign schools is currently a focal point, it's not the only variable in this equation.

The bigger question is whether we're already graduating too many veterinarians from our domestic programs, the Caribbean, and other foreign schools. And class size is growing.

We're not immune to the laws of supply and demand, and veterinary income continues to lag far behind those of other allied health professions. We won't be good stewards of the profession if we don't ensure the economic viability of veterinary practice into the future.

How successful has the AVMA been in advancing animal welfare?

I think we've come a long way in recognizing animal welfare as a proper concern for veterinary medicine. Veterinarians care both for and about animals, but we're also rugged individualists and bridle at anyone telling us exactly what to think. Nevertheless, we've been able to formulate policies on a wide range of issues, from tail docking to forced molting.

At the same time, we're criticized for being followers and not leaders in the animal welfare arena, particularly for production animals. I'm not sure that this is a problem, but rather, a feature of who we represent and the variety of practice roles represented in our membership.

AVMA needs to be responsive to widely different constituencies, ranging from veterinarians who care for production animals to veterinarians who consume those animals, to veterinarians who object to animal consumption, and their clients. We like to tell ourselves that there are scientific answers to the questions that animal welfare poses. In the end, these are questions of values, not science, and science alone won't provide those answers.

We can't fairly represent 85,000 veterinarians if we're uncomfortable with taking some flexible and nuanced stands on some of these issues. It doesn't make us weak to reflect the diversity in the profession, in animal welfare, and elsewhere; it makes AVMA a more powerful advocate for veterinarians.

Is the AVMA doing enough to ensure the veterinary profession's economic health?

Not yet.

AVMA responds well to the needs of society and has been very focused on the needs of students in the past few years. We need to turn our attention to what the vast majority of our members and, indeed, the profession, do for a living, every day: practice veterinary medicine.

What challenges and opportunities are facing the profession?

In the last few years, I've attended meetings and spoken with veterinarians from around the country. I remember vividly one younger member voicing her concern about her ability to manage her staggering educational debt and questioning what kind of living veterinary medicine could provide. She was referring to accreditation and UNAM, but around the country, worries like this aren't uncommon. AVMA needs to pay attention.

I think we're on the edge of a serious change in the veterinary medicine landscape we've known, one that's brought incredible growth and prosperity for the past few generations. I don't know what life in our profession will look like on the other side, but I worry, too.

We're facing growing educational debt, decreasing office visits, and stagnant income. It's a struggle to provide services to rural America, and we're failing, either because the jobs aren't there or the communities aren't attractive enough to pull in young veterinarians.

At the same time, we're overproducing companion animal veterinarians for the suburbs. With falling tax revenues, state support for colleges of veterinary medicine is in serious jeopardy. Colleges are desperately in need of income, and there's no shortage of students who dream of becoming veterinarians. But students aren't always savvy consumers, and regardless of high veterinary student debt load, we don't know how to stop ourselves from recruiting to the profession.

In addition, because we can't service rural areas and because this economy is increasing competitive pressures on everybody, we're fighting scope-of-practice battles and threats from other kinds of providers in many states, from tooth floaters to chiropractors.

Not least, we've got to contend with the economic effects of corporate practice, OTC small animal drugs, the Internet, and other paradigm-changing technologies.

On the positive side, we represent a societal resource that is, even now, underappreciated. In addition to the importance people place on their relationship with animals, we can bring unique value to biomedical research, public and environmental health, and food safety. The one-health dream is alive, but it won't save us, and we need to recognize that these roles are still a small slice of the profession.

Anything you'd like to add?

As I've said, we're facing challenges in our profession. We need to be both willing and able to respond to these challenges as a unified profession, but we can't do that effectively without AVMA. And for AVMA to be effective, we need real leadership from our member volunteers.

If you think things are going smoothly for the profession, and that AVMA can cruise on its history and accumulated goodwill, then it really doesn't matter who's in leadership.

But if, like me, you think we need something better than the business-as-usual, that we need more young members in leadership roles, a greater focus on the business side of veterinary medicine, if you think we need to be more responsive to the concerns of our members, then now is the time to act.

Dr. Brown
Dr. Gary S. Brown

I want every veterinarian to enjoy being an AVMA member. I feel veterinarians should want to belong to AVMA because they realize its value to them, not because of obligation or pressure from their peers.


Why are you running for president-elect?

Dr. Brown responds:

I was originally asked by fellow Executive Board members to run for AVMA president-elect. I had long had the desire, but this year presented the opportunity. Beginning as the alternate delegate from West Virginia and then delegate, I was fortunate to build great relationships with members of the House of Delegates and the Executive Board. Those relationships ultimately resulted in two terms as AVMA vice president. Those relationships continued to compound and strengthen my desire to help the AVMA and its members. Words don't easily describe the pleasure of being a part of AVMA. I smile because I enjoy being around veterinarians and their families.

If elected, what do you want to accomplish?

I would like AVMA to improve its image when viewed by its members. I want every veterinarian to enjoy being an AVMA member. I feel veterinarians should want to belong to AVMA because they realize its value to them, not because of obligation or pressure from their peers. I would like to see current student and recent graduate programs not only maintained but also encouraged to grow and expand. I would like to see student debt, as well as the cost of education, restructured to be more easily managed.

What do you see as the AVMA president's role?

Their foremost role is to represent. The president must be every member's president. They must be able to communicate effectively to a wide range of audiences. These include members, students, faculty, administrators, allied groups, political leaders, and of course, the public we serve. The president is also, in many instances, the voice of AVMA. They are the person who speaks legislatively and about critical issues for the AVMA. They are the one who lifts up individuals and groups when needed, and calmly yet decisively thinks and acts if a crisis arises. When (people)look upon the president, they see the AVMA reflected. They should see AVMA as the vibrant, hardworking, generous, community-minded organization that it is.

What qualifies you for the position?

Besides the requirements of our bylaws, I believe that I am particularly qualified for president-elect. I have been blessed to have veterinarians voluntarily help me when I was in need. I am driven to help others. I am a mentor for multiple veterinary students every year. I remain active with my state association and alma mater. I am an actively practicing veterinarian and practice owner with significant mixed-animal experience that helps me to understand the needs of most AVMA veterinarians and allied groups. I have no hidden agenda, so I am transparent in all of my actions. I speak concisely and in a straightforward and honest manner. I have a tried-and-true track record of servant leadership locally, statewide, and nationally. Two terms as AVMA vice president enriched my communication skills and broadened my scope of understanding of the idiosyncrasies of AVMA and veterinary education. I have great practice associates who allow me to commit to the heavy travel demands of the president-elect. My core values that provide the guiding principles in my life have been instilled in me by my family, my colleagues, and community organizations, including my church, Boy Scouts, Future Farmers of America, and 4-H.

What distinguishes you from your opponent?

My experience as vice president has taken me to every veterinary school in the United States, all Caribbean veterinary schools, and the Atlantic Veterinary College in Canada. I have made valuable contacts and strong relationships with students, faculty, and administration at each of them. This experience has given me an incredibly broad perspective of veterinary education. It has allowed me to connect with young people and new graduates. It is an honor to have the support of the Student AVMA.

The past four years I have been extremely devoted to AVMA and have never missed an Executive Board meeting. Nearly half of them have been at my own expense. As a practicing veterinarian and practice owner with extensive mixed-animal experience, I know and understand the needs of the majority of AVMA members. I continue to be active with my state's governance. I have helped secure funding for the veterinary student fly-in to the Governmental Relations Division in Washington, D.C. I represented AVMA at a national congressional committee meeting this year. I have been sought for various public speaking engagements and white coat ceremonies. I feel comfortable speaking to any audience from students to legislators, from senior veterinarians to farmers, from third-graders to researchers. My youthful attitude is genuine and welcomed when days get long and difficult.

What is your response to criticisms the AVMA is not a member-driven organization and fails to look after member interests?

First, let me say, AVMA must be a member-driven organization. I feel those criticisms come from reduced communications. Currently, there are channels for members to voice their ideas, thoughts, and concerns to AVMA. However, these channels can be intimidating and somewhat camouflaged. It would be sensible to have a uniform procedure for the influx of ideas. The AVMA leaders must make decisions, and sometimes they are met with disapproval, but they are made with genuine purpose toward members and the veterinary profession. I would hope that any member would feel comfortable using any of my contact information listed in the membership directory.

Should the AVMA Council on Education be in the business of accrediting foreign veterinary schools?

Accreditation helps maintain the high standard of education we expect from our U.S. and Canadian veterinary colleges. However, the process of accreditation is not clear to most members, and some feel it is veiled in secrecy. Although each school's information should remain confidential, the process of accreditation should be understood. The Council on Education, being part of AVMA yet having apparent distance from AVMA, is confusing to most.

Foreign schools that actively strive to attain the level of education of the U.S. and Canadian schools will benefit the world. The AVMA Council on Education is currently the only entity qualified to assess colleges of veterinary medicine. I don't see accrediting foreign veterinary schools as a "business" as the question suggests, but I do see it as improving world health. There is no doubt that accrediting foreign schools may create acute challenges, but I feel our profession will be able to resolve them and become stronger. As the world looks to the AVMA for leadership in this area, we have the opportunity to positively effect change globally.

How successful has the AVMA been in advancing animal welfare?

There have been tremendous strides in the last several years. The formation and staffing of the Animal Welfare Division within AVMA has been a great asset to our profession. Students and recent graduates are especially knowledgeable about animal welfare and are constantly supplying new ideas. The internship program in animal welfare at AVMA headquarters is very popular. We still have much more to do. Attending the Animal Welfare Symposium at Michigan State University in 2009 with experts from around the world enlightened everyone and validated that we need to proceed forward in the fight for the welfare of animals. We veterinarians are the animal welfare experts, but at times we have allowed others to overshadow our voice. With the help of the membership, AVMA and veterinarians will be the voice most often heard in this arena.

Is the AVMA doing enough to ensure the veterinary profession's economic health?

This is a multifaceted question. If dealing with practice viability in today's economy, then perhaps not. The public is not aware of the capabilities of today's veterinarian. Increasing the public's knowledge of the wide breadth of ways veterinarians serve and protect them daily would boost the veterinarian's perceived value. If the question deals with student debt, then AVMA can do more. In-depth studies are needed to look at model ideas that are both innovative and sustainable. Appropriate and long-term philanthropy could help offset a portion of debt. These are critical issues that the House of Delegates is looking at closely. AVMA can make sure that the diploma each DVM/VMD receives has enduring value.

What challenges and opportunities are facing the profession?

The challenges are something the AVMA House of Delegates has taken on, as leaders should. Environmental scanning has determined a number of critical issues. The priority of each is different with each state and circumstance. Many states are dealing with scope-of-practice issues. These issues may deal with laypersons, limited licensure, or meeting the needs of society. Another challenge, veterinary workforce—primarily food animal—may blend with the scope of practice.

Practice profitability was discussed earlier. AVMA must become the leaders of animal welfare. Maintaining research funding is essential. Veterinary education challenges are increasingly difficult and include continuing to produce fully prepared graduates and sustaining highly qualified applicant pools. New sustainable models for veterinary medical education need to be developed, keeping in mind student debt load.

I also see these challenges as opportunities. Veterinarians are vital and the best in the world at dealing with one-health issues. We have the opportunity to be the voice for animal welfare and to provide the best solutions for some of society's most critical needs. As we gather information from forward-thinking groups like the (AVMA) 20/20 (Vision) Commission and North American Veterinary Medical Education Consortium, it is clear we must be proactive. We can offer new graduates the assurance that their dream vocation was the right choice.

Anything you'd like to add?

Helen Keller said, "Alone we can do so little, together we can do so much." The president of any organization is but one individual. Beside them, not behind, is a great group of individuals who have a common goal. I am also blessed to have my wife Mitzi's love and support.