We are not your father’s AVMA

After five years as executive vice president, Dr. Ron DeHaven sees an organization evolving with the times
Published on October 17, 2012
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Dr. Ron DeHaven tries to keep as low a profile as possible for a man in his position.

In some ways, Dr. DeHaven’s current role as AVMA executive vice president could not be more unlike his former career as chief veterinary officer for the Department of Agriculture. When the first U.S. case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy was diagnosed late in 2003, it was Dr. DeHaven’s job to reassure an anxious public about the safety of the nation’s beef supply.

Four years later, Dr. Larry M. Kornegay would recall Dr. DeHaven’s deft handling of a situation that could have easily spiraled into an international crisis. At the time, AVMA Executive Vice President Bruce W. Little was retiring, and Dr. Kornegay was chairing the committee searching for his successor. Dr. DeHaven—who by then was administrator of the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service—had applied for the job. The rest is history.

“Personally, I was impressed with his interactions with the media during the BSE scare and his ability to convey a professional, coherent, and scientifically sound message in a cool, calm, and collected fashion,” Dr. Kornegay told JAVMA News.

“If anything, Dr. DeHaven has exceeded my personal expectations, and I had some high expectations that he would excel as our executive vice president,” he added.

Dr. Ron DeHaven
Photo by R. Scott Nolen

Since assuming the responsibilities of the AVMA’s chief executive officer in 2007, Dr. DeHaven has chosen to work behind the scenes rather than stand in the spotlight at every opportunity. “As administrator at APHIS, I was the one expected to be the spokesman for the agency to the media, the public, and the (USDA) secretary. Here at AVMA, that really is the appropriate role for the volunteer leaders,” he explained.

As a result of his work supporting Association leadership, Dr. DeHaven is helping transform the AVMA from an organ-ization whose primary function was being an informational resource into one focused on program delivery. “We are creating a new AVMA,” he said. “As the Board of Governors likes to say, ‘We are not your father’s AVMA.’

Dr. DeHaven
At a Senate hearing, Dr. Ron DeHaven relays the AVMA’s response to a Government Accountability Office report on veterinary workforce shortages.

What’s changing—and this is part of our greater engagement in the animal welfare arena—is more of a willingness to take a position on an animal welfare issue.

“In the past, we’ve been a source of information on everything veterinary both to the membership and the public, whereas the future is going to be actual program delivery, what I like to call ‘boots on the ground’ activities. What we’re starting to do now is assist individual members in their practice of veterinary medicine, whether that is public or private practice, or helping their bottom line.”

Dr. DeHaven wears many hats as AVMA executive vice president. In addition to managing the day-to-day operations of the Association, he provides logistic support and expert opinion to the Executive Board, is a voting member of the American Veterinary Medical Foundation board of directors, and represents the AVMA at stakeholder meetings in the United States and abroad. He also chairs an ad hoc group of the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) working to establish minimum standards for veterinary education worldwide as well as the Partnership for Preventive Pet Healthcare.

“I have found the job to be more challenging and rewarding than what I ever anticipated, and I think that’s in large part because I have a far better appreciation of what the AVMA is involved in and what it’s doing for the profession,” he said.

One of the most compelling reasons Dr. DeHaven had for coming to work for the AVMA was to have a hand in shaping the profession’s future through implementing the Association’s strategic plan. “It’s interesting that we’ve made significant progress in some areas, and other areas have become bigger issues today than back when I first came to AVMA,” he observed.

The AVMA is doing a tremendous job advocating for the veterinary profession at the federal and state levels and with regulatory agencies, according to Dr. DeHaven. Animal welfare is another area where he believes the Association has made substantial strides and has become more willing to take positions on controversial issues. During that same period, however, veterinary workforce issues, economic growth, and veterinary education have become acutely complex areas, requiring the AVMA to step up its engagement in each.

Dr. DeHaven addresses Chinese VMA
In 2009, Dr. Ron DeHaven traveled to Beijing as the AVMA representative to address the first assembly of the Chinese VMA.

When Dr. DeHaven came to the AVMA, the strategic plan was largely developed by staff. Over the past five years, however, the Executive Board has taken over that responsibility. Dr. DeHaven noted that the AVMA’s 2012-2015 strategic plan was created by the board with staff input.

“Now, much more time in board meetings is spent discussing strategic issues than actual day-to-day operational items,” he said. “I think that’s an important area of improvement and success.”

Staff are by no means playing a lesser role. In fact, he said, it’s just the opposite. “When I came, staff (were) very reluctant to speak up unless their input was requested,” Dr. DeHaven said. “For me, it’s been rewarding to see this highly professional and competent staff volunteer to make a statement and express an opinion. The board is seeking out their input now, whereas in the past, it wasn’t always that way.”

There are others around the world more than willing to assume that leadership role if the U.S. isn’t there.

Dr. DeHaven says he has evolved as a leader. Early in his career as a Washington “bureaucrat,” he was a self-described micromanager who had a handle on what each of his employees was doing. But as his responsibilities and staff grew, Dr. DeHaven learned to be more hands off and empower employees. “Here at AVMA, it’s a matter of establishing a vision for the future in conjunction with the Executive Board, communicating that to the employees, and then stepping back and letting them do their thing,” he explained.

Like all professional organizations, the AVMA must demonstrate its value to members. Over the past five years, Dr. DeHaven has watched generational and gender trends become much more prominent within veterinary medicine. “As a profession, we’re becoming more female, and we are serving a membership made up of four generations with very different needs and wants,” he explained. There’s also an increasing tendency among the various disciplines within veterinary medicine to become entrenched in particular issues, which worries Dr. DeHaven.

“We are a profession of some 100,000 individuals,” he said. “That sounds like a lot, but from a national perspective, we are a small player, and we can’t afford to have divisive issues that split us.”

Dr. DeHaven continued, “One of the challenging things is we hear from the companion animal groups that you’re focusing all of your efforts on the food animal side, and we hear from the food animal side that you’re focusing all of your efforts on the companion animal side. Pick a discipline within the profession, and you hear the same thing—that we’re not getting enough attention paid to our issues. That’s inherent, given the diversity within the profession.

Dr. DeHaven and Sen. Harkin
Dr. Ron DeHaven uses a chance encounter with Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin on Capitol Hill to advocate for the AVMA’s legislative priorities. (Photo by R. Scott Nolen)

“You have to start from the premise that you’re not going to please all of the people all of the time. In our context, that means looking at the myriad of challenges we’re facing as a profession, picking out the ones that we think are the highest priority, and focusing on those while also doing the core activities that everyone benefits from, such as advocacy, publishing premier journals, and hosting a world-class national convention each year.

“We do provide a good value for everyone in the profession, and at any given time the priorities are going to shift in terms of what we’re working on. At any given time, one group may perceive AVMA is not working effectively for them. That is a challenge in terms of getting the membership to understand that on any given day, we’re doing things for all of them, but we’re also working on high-priority issues that may have far greater impact for one part of the profession than others.”

One of Dr. DeHaven’s biggest frustrations is the AVMA’s inability to effectively communicate to members all the Association is doing for them and the profession. “We get survey results back that indicate AVMA should be doing certain things which clearly indicate that the members don’t realize we’re already very much engaged in the same activities they suggest we should be involved in,” he said. For instance, members have suggested the AVMA should have an office in Washington, D.C., to advocate for the profession. The AVMA has had an office in the nation’s capital since 1953.

Drs. DeHaven and McCrystle
One of Dr. Ron DeHaven’s duties as AVMA executive vice president is to advise the Executive Board. Here he confers with former board chair Dr. David L. McCrystle. (Photo by R. Scott Nolen)

“I find that as a shortcoming on the part of the staff in general, and me personally, in terms of not being able to connect with the members on some of the things we’re doing for them,” Dr. DeHaven said.

The new strategy is to not focus on communicating all the AVMA is doing, but rather, to highlight a few initiatives that most members can relate to. “We’ve tried being all things veterinary to everyone, and because of that, we’ve been ineffective at communicating all the things we’re doing. So you’ll see, going forward, a focus on a half a dozen key initiatives that we’re working on as opposed to everything. We’ll continue working on all the things we do, but we’re going to focus our communications on just a few of them,” Dr. DeHaven said.

Not only does the AVMA represent the interests of a diverse membership, the organization also advocates for the humane treatment of all animals. At times, these dual obligations can come into conflict. Arguably, there is no more explicit example of this than when, earlier this year, the Executive Board voted to support H.R. 3798—the Egg Products Inspection Act Amendments of 2012. Introduced by veterinarian and Oregon congressman Kurt Schrader, the legislation would codify an agreement between the Humane Society of the United States and United Egg Producers over a set of standards regulating the treatment of egg-laying hens. H.R. 3798 is controversial because there currently is no federal oversight of animal housing and production practices on livestock farms.

We do provide a good value for everyone in the profession, and at any given time the priorities are going to shift in terms of what we’re working on.

Dr. DeHaven takes issue with longstanding criticism that the AVMA marches in lock step with the livestock industry. “We have a position that supports the use of animals for human purposes taking into account that we should be the most strident advocates for their welfare and well-being. Because we have that basic philosophy, there’s been this perception we’ve been inherently supportive of the food animal groups,” he said.

In the past, the Executive Board would not have supported a bill as controversial as H.R. 3798, according to Dr. DeHaven. “The board would’ve understood the merits of the animal welfare component and the concerns about on-the-farm regulatory oversight by the government. But for fear of offending segments of the membership, we would’ve taken no action. What’s changing—and this is part of our greater engagement in the animal welfare arena—is more of a willingness to take a position on an animal welfare issue,” he explained.

“It was a bold action by the board, one taken with full understanding of the complexities of the legislation and (with board members) fully realizing the position taken was going to create a lot of angst among a number of groups, but they felt the animal welfare concerns were the most compelling argument,” Dr. DeHaven continued. “It is a transition and one that brought to the surface the fact that we’re going to take the position that we think is best for the veterinary profession and not necessarily one that supports or doesn’t support particular interest groups.”

Dr. DeHaven says there’s no such thing as a perfect piece of legislation. Once a bill is introduced, there are multiple opportunities to remove the objectionable parts while still supporting the overarching purpose. Legitimate concerns exist over H.R. 3798, he acknowledged, such as whether it would be the first inroad for on-the-farm government oversight of production animal welfare or set a precedent for making animal welfare requirements a component of trade. The AVMA will work to address those concerns, Dr. DeHaven added.

On the global stage, Dr. DeHaven has capitalized on his connections from his time at APHIS to strengthen AVMA ties with foreign veterinary organizations, including the OIE, Pan-American Association of Veterinary Sciences, and Federation of Veterinarians of Europe.

“Going back to my role at APHIS, I quickly understood that the rest of the world looks to the United States to assume a leadership role in virtually any capacity, including veterinary medicine,” he said. “For example, I think there’s an understanding outside the U.S. that AVMA has the gold standard for veterinary education. We have an obligation to help less-developed countries improve their standards, and we do have a leadership role, whether we like it or not.

“There are others around the world more than willing to assume that leadership role if the U.S. isn’t there. It gets at that adage of you can either have a seat at the table or be on the menu. We need to not only have a seat at the table but be at the head of it.”

Dr. DeHaven anticipates the next few years will be a defining period not only for the veterinary profession but for the AVMA as well. “What we do in the next three to five years in the areas of education, economics, and animal welfare is dramatically going to impact what the profession is or is not in the next two to three decades. And for AVMA, how well we are able to maintain our relevance with members will dictate whether or not the AVMA is going to provide another 150 years of service to the profession.”