On the road with AVMA President Carlson

Published on December 15, 2011
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2011-2012 AVMA President Dr. René A. Carlson 

Historically, AVMA has functioned as more of

a hierarchal association, with us providing information

to our members. We live in a different age, and AVMA must continue transforming

itself. AVMA has become much more interactive by offering

opportunities for members to provide feedback.

AVMA President René A. Carlson

Since becoming AVMA president this past July, Dr. René A. Carlson has traveled the country representing the Association. Here, Dr. Carlson talks about her message and what she's hearing from AVMA members.

What is your message as AVMA president?

Dale Carnegie said to choose your topics based on the three E's: something you are excited about, something you are eager to share with others, and something you have earned the right to talk about. I have my own three E's: Economics, Education, and Engaging members.

Economics: Many people are struggling during this economic recession, and the veterinary medical profession has its own set of economic challenges: increasing educational debt, a seemingly depressed job market, and decreased veterinary patient visits. Recently, the AVMA Executive Board took several bold steps to address these issues, including adopting a vision statement declaring "veterinary medicine is a personally and financially rewarding profession."

To help make this a reality, we established an AVMA Veterinary Economics Division and committed $5 million over the next five years to the National Economics Strategy Fund in reserves. We are in the process of appointing a Veterinary Economics Strategy Committee to advise the Executive Board.

Education: Our graduates are struggling with the ever-increasing cost of a veterinary medical education. Our veterinary medical colleges are struggling with decreased federal and state funding for higher education programs. One of the AVMA strategic goals calls for the Association to be a "catalyst for transformation" within veterinary medical education. To that end, we have started a dialogue with the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges to address these issues. In addition, we need to be sure we continue graduating the most competent veterinarians in the world and build their confidence in the process for their first months on the job, including increased emphasis on preventive wellness care.

Engagement: Historically, AVMA has functioned as more of a hierarchal association, with us providing information to our members. We live in a different age, and AVMA must continue transforming itself. AVMA has become much more interactive by offering opportunities for members to provide feedback through our blogs and e-newsletters on AVMA policies and the work of various committees and councils. Member input is essential. We will be looking at our governance structure and how we can include a more diverse gender and generational representation and participation.

What are members saying? Are there common themes?

Members are concerned about the economy, as are many Americans. They recognize the enormous educational debt many of our graduates are carrying because of decreased government support for higher education. And, even before the recession started, veterinary visits were in decline. Additionally, salaries have remained stagnant in relation to the rising cost of attaining a DVM/VMD degree.

There are concerns about workforce distribution, especially with the perception of a disproportionate number of companion animal practitioners, and the weak job market. Many potential employers of new graduates, if they are even interested in hiring a new associate or are able to, are concerned about an apparent decreased level of confidence in those new graduates as they enter their first year of practice. Practice owners considering retirement wonder how they will sell their practices to heavily indebted graduates. The AVMA has a schedule for gathering specific workforce data over the next year to try to get the correct information on which to base our decisions.

Many AVMA members are not familiar with the complicated yet credible process for accrediting domestic and foreign veterinary medical education programs, and, understandably, there are many questions about the process. It is difficult to appreciate the complexity of accreditation without having served on the AVMA Council on Education as I did and participating in the rigorous evaluation site visits and discussions. We intend to make this process more clear.

Finally, many members, especially our female members, see AVMA as a traditional "good old boys network" with a traditional hierarchy. That system may have served the profession well for more than a century, but it needs to change. It has to change if we are to have true member representation and participation by the more than half of our members who are women and the 43 percent of our members who graduated less than 15 years ago, and if we are to attract a more diverse pool of applicants to veterinary medicine. AVMA needs to change dramatically in this new age where participation and transparency are expected by most members.

How is the AVMA's plan to strengthen the business side of veterinary medicine being received?

The feedback many of us have heard about the announced priority for the national economic strategy is very positive. At the November Executive Board meeting, AVMA acknowledged we have a workforce issue, with the following statement: "Based on information received from across the profession, the AVMA believes that veterinary medicine is facing critical workforce issues." As I mentioned earlier, we have initiated a long-term, multimillion-dollar initiative to find solutions for these very serious economic problems.

A related initiative is the Partnership for Preventive Pet Healthcare. AVMA is working with industry, academia, and other veterinary organizations in a nationwide campaign to ensure pets receive the preventive health care they deserve through regular veterinary medical examinations and consultations.

In your HOD address last July, you spoke about the need for an open and engaged leadership structure at the AVMA. Do you see progress in this area?

Definitely. We are in the process of appointing a task force to look at AVMA governance; its charge is to "review and evaluate the AVMA governance structure including the Executive Board, House of Delegates, and all other entities including councils, committees, task forces, commissions, and trusts."

This is not an effort to simply review what is already in place but to really look at current models for effective Association governance for the 21st century to meet our professional and membership needs. This is incredibly important so we can be sure we will maintain the high level of credibility, respect, and influence AVMA currently has around the world, and that we maintain the high percentage of members we have among U.S. veterinarians. At 83 percent member representation, we are the envy of many a professional association. Such success will depend on the value that members continue to see in their AVMA membership.

I am extremely proud of the services the AVMA provides me personally as a veterinarian, and I hope members will look thoroughly at everything the AVMA provides for that membership, such as political advocacy; policy development; communications; scientific support, including issues such as judicious use of antimicrobials and emergency preparedness; the JAVMA and AJVR; the highest integrity for our veterinary medical education degree through COE accreditation; an animal welfare division; the annual convention; and both liability and health as well as life and disability protection, to name only a few.

Anything else you want to share?

We are appointing a Task Force on Foreign School Accreditation to evaluate many issues given the current environment, projected over 10 years. That group will provide a written informational report, without prejudice, to the Executive Board. Task force members should be appointed by this January.

Also, members need to provide the AVMA with their current email address. This is extremely important should we need to contact them or provide them with information about emergency issues related to veterinary medicine.

Finally, this will be a new AVMA. And for that to happen, it is important that we hear from our members. There is no better profession than veterinary medicine, but we are facing significant challlenges that must be addressed, and we need to come together to do it. That does not mean we all have to agree or that we cannot express our different views at times, but on the important professional issues of debt, workforce, or food production and safety, we all must work toward a common goal and vision: the improvement of animal and human health, advancement of the veterinary medical profession, and realization that veterinary medicine is a personally and financially rewarding profession.

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