AAHA president discusses economics, students

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Dr. Russak
Dr. Mark Russak with his dogs (Courtesy of Ellen T. Russak)

The American Animal Hospital Association needs to help practices be successful in a challenging and fluid economy, said Dr. Mark Russak, the new AAHA president.

"Our profession has been through a tough period, and things are starting to turn around, but slowly," he said. "Educating the public to the true value veterinary medicine has to offer is the key to practice recovery."

The association also must help veterinary students make the transition into practice, said Dr. Russak, who became AAHA president at the association's conference in March.

Dr. Russak comes to the office after retiring from Mississippi State University College of Veterinary Medicine, where he taught for seven years. Previously, he owned an AAHA-accredited practice in Connecticut for nearly 25 years.

Growing up in Connecticut, Dr. Russak knew he wanted to become a veterinarian.

"From the day I knew about careers, it was the only thing I ever wanted to be," Dr. Russak said. "I was a kid who brought home birds, squirrels, and any other wildlife, sick or injured, and tried to fix them up."

The local veterinarian assisted with his rescue efforts and let him volunteer in the summers. During the Vietnam War era, he volunteered to join the Air Force and became a veterinary technician in that setting. After discharge, he went on to Colorado State University College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, earning his veterinary degree in 1976.

Following graduation, Dr. Russak worked for several years at an AAHA-accredited practice in West Hartford, Conn. Then he founded the Animal Hospital of Berlin in Berlin, Conn. He designed the hospital with AAHA accreditation in mind, and the hospital earned accreditation soon after establishment.

Along the way, Dr. Russak served as president of the Hartford County VMA and Greater Hartford Veterinary Emergency Care Hospital. He is a long-standing member of the AVMA; VetPartners, an association of management consultants; and a number of other veterinary organizations.

In 2003, Dr. Russak sold his hospital to join Mississippi State's veterinary college as an assistant clinical professor of primary care. At the college, he became an AAHA faculty adviser and an adviser to the student chapter of the AVMA and the college's chapter of the Veterinary Business Management Association, a student organization.

Also while at the college, he was proud to receive the Dean's Pegasus Award for Teaching in 2006. He became the college's director of student affairs before his recent retirement and move back to Connecticut.

As AAHA president, Dr. Russak will build on his background in practice and academia.

Dr. Russak sees a problem with fragmentation in veterinary medicine. He believes some areas have too many companion animal practices. At the same time, he said, many pet owners turn to the Internet before their veterinarian when a pet is sick.

"We need to position ourselves to be the first choice for pet health care information," he said.

Dr. Russak sees a recipe for disaster in the increase in veterinary students' educational debt relevant to starting salaries.

"Many will survive this adversity, but not all," Dr. Russak said. "The profession must band together to tackle this issue. Veterinary medicine has been wonderful to most of us. We owe it to those who will come after us to help solve this challenge."

Recently, AAHA has revamped its student program to emphasize career development. One step was creation of a consortium of speakers to deliver presentations at colleges about subjects such as business and life skills.

Many veterinary students say they would take a lower starting salary in exchange for mentoring, Dr. Russak said. An AAHA task force is developing guidelines for such exchanges and developing mentoring tools for practices.

During the AAHA conference, Dr. Russak heard from individual practitioners that they are doing somewhat better economically. He said the outlook was much more positive than during the previous year's conference.

Dr. Knutson
Dr. Kate Knutson
Dr. Crumley
Dr. Kate Crumley
Dr. Sukhija
Dr. Amar Sukhija

Joining Dr. Russak as AAHA officers are Drs. Kate Knutson, Bloomington, Minn., president-elect; Kate Crumley, Youngsville, N.C., vice president; Aman Sukhija, Ormond Beach, Fla., secretary-treasurer; and Michael R. Moyer, Bensalem, Pa., immediate past president.