State of the (veterinary) union

Aspros reflects on his presidency so far
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Dr. Douglas G. Aspros

In February, JAVMA News talked with AVMA President Douglas G. Aspros about being the Association’s top spokesman and asked him to reflect on some of the initiatives he’s looking forward to in the months ahead.

Since taking office last August, do you still feel this is the best and worst of times for the veterinary profession?

I wish I could say that in the six months I’ve been president I’ve solved all the problems of veterinary medicine. But since I’m only halfway through my term, I only needed to solve half of them. Seriously, I don’t think that was anybody’s expectation, and it certainly wasn’t mine.

It remains a time of fundamental change in the profession. The ground is shifting underneath us, and times like these are stressful on everyone: practitioners, employers, colleges. But I’m confident that AVMA has fully appreciated the issues that the profession is facing, both today and in the future. Although we don’t have answers for all those concerns, we do have plans, strategies, and, as (AVMA CEO) Ron DeHaven likes to say, “boots on the ground” throughout the profession working on solutions.

Do you see the AVMA differently now that you’re the “face” of the Association?

It is an interesting experience being the face of anything, other than myself. It’s humbling and quite special to represent AVMA at so very many places and in so many contexts. AVMA is widely respected across the profession and around the world. People complain to AVMA about how things are, but also look to us for answers that address the problems they face. I’m proud of AVMA for having earned the reputation we have and our willingness to use that strength in service of the profession.

Were any parts of the latest AVMA Biennial Economic Survey particularly notable to you?

It reinforced my belief that the veterinary profession and our problems don’t exist in a vacuum. Many of the challenges we face are not unique to veterinary medicine; rather, they are outgrowths of a society in flux. People are moving out of rural areas and into cities; boomers are growing older; information technology is constantly changing.

The AVMA is involved in two major initiatives: conducting an economic analysis of the U.S. veterinary workforce and reforming the organization’s governance structure. What are your hopes for each?

I’m very excited about our economics work, and I’m particularly excited about finally identifying Mike Dicks (PhD) to head the AVMA Veterinary Economics Division (see story). It’s been a long time coming, because we were careful to find the right person. I’m very impressed with Dr. Dicks’ skill set; he has real-world experience as well as an academic background. He’ll help AVMA make sense of the workforce data and plan our next steps. Then there’s the Veterinary Economics Strategy Committee, a group of amazing people. I’ve attended each of their meetings, and the breadth of experience and range of out-of-the-box thinking they bring is going to pay off for AVMA and help us move forward to solving some of our most important concerns.

The governance reform process is of fundamental importance to the future of AVMA. The perspective that “nothing’s broke” is not a forward-looking perspective. As I said earlier, many structural changes have occurred in American society, which is certainly true in terms of how people want to and are interacting with professional associations like ours. If we are going to be good stewards of this wonderful association, then it is our responsibility to make good choices for the future health and vitality of AVMA.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about Vetlandia, a mythical place where you gain citizenship, with all the rights and privileges, by graduating from veterinary college.

At its heart, AVMA is Vetlandia.

We do so many things: We advocate, we provide benefits such as PLIT and GHLIT, we produce resources including the model veterinary practice act and the Panel on Euthanasia guidelines. But at the end of the day, the most important thing about the AVMA is it speaks for every one of us. Regardless of what you do—whether you’re a small animal practitioner or you work for APHIS, whether you’re a researcher or you manage dairy herds—AVMA listens to your perspectives and amplifies your voice.

If we are going to be good stewards of this wonderful association, then it is our responsibility to make good choices for the future health and vitality of AVMA.

AVMA President Douglas G. Aspros

There’s a concern that AVMA is going to evolve into a small animal–focused association. That totally misses why I think most of us are AVMA members. We don’t want AVMA to turn into another AAHA; we already have an AAHA, and they do a great job fulfilling their mission. What we need is for AVMA to be the organization bringing all of us together as veterinarians. We can’t afford to lose that unity, but we don’t have to, in order to become a more nimble and contemporary organization.

I’m eager to see how the (AVMA Governance and Member Participation) task force approaches these and other concerns that came up at the AVMA Veterinary Leadership Conference (see JAVMA, March 1, 2013).

Talk about the upcoming Intraprofessional Communications Summit on Animal Welfare and why there’s a need for it.

Many of the issues that have been divisive at AVMA during my time with the organization have centered on animal welfare. It’s become clear to me that there’s a big degree of misunderstanding and distrust inside the profession when we talk about and develop policies on these matters. The summit will be an opportunity for us to talk to ourselves, without having nonveterinary groups stirring up the waters. A lot of groups use animal welfare issues to raise funds, and you don’t do that by being reasonable, but instead, by amplifying people’s anger and raising the level of rhetoric, and that gets in the way of real communication and community.

The summit will be a chance for us to talk to each other, as veterinarians, about what veterinary medicine’s role is in terms of animal welfare in a wide range of practice settings. I was in China last fall, and it’s a really interesting country; the pace of change is awesome. When I asked them how they viewed the veterinarian’s role in animal welfare, they said, “When we have human welfare, we’ll worry about animal welfare.” Animal welfare is a highly complex field, contextual, and there’s no single solution to the issues facing us. We have to talk about what’s expected of veterinarians in this arena and what we expect of ourselves in a way that feels safe and supportive. I’m excited about it.