Walking the talk

AAEP president advocates for practice ownership
Published on
information-circle This article is more than 3 years old

Dr. Kathleen M. Anderson is thankful for the mentorship she’s received over the years. Now, as president of the American Association of Equine Practitioners, she’s hoping to do the same for future horse veterinarians like herself, especially in the areas of practice ownership and management.

Dr. Anderson frequently has externs and interns come through her practice, Equine Veterinary Care P.C., in Elkton, Maryland.

When she talks with students, often she asks them, “‘What are your plans for ownership?’ Because that’s the way out of the debt tunnel. That’s being part of the process and not a victim of the process. It’s like buying a house, plus it gives you the ability to manage your lifestyle because you are a decision-maker and have the ability to have power over where the growth of the practice goes.”

Dr. Anderson says when they’re sitting in a truck driving to a call, students become more excited about the prospect after a thoughtful conversation during which Dr. Anderson points out how they could become owners. But in a casual situation, often she hears students say that they’re in too much debt to consider buying a practice.

“It’s giving confidence and offering a hand. The information they need to get has to be from seeing how it works and having role models,” she said.

“A terrific experience”

Growing up, Dr. Anderson was a self-described “very active, horse-crazy kid.”

After high school, she worked as a rider and trainer. Then at 22, she encountered a young woman starting veterinary school, and a lightbulb went on.

“I figured it was a way to be with horses without mucking stalls the rest of my life,” she laughed.

Dr. Anderson
2016 American Association of Equine Practitioners President Kathy Anderson (Courtesy of K. Rengert)

Dr. Anderson studied at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Saskatchewan but missed the first three weeks of class to be a groom for the Canadian Equestrian Team at the 1982 World Equestrian Games in Germany. There she met her mentor, then United States Equestrian Team veterinarian, Dr. A. Martin Simensen. She asked him if she could do an externship with him, which she did during her third year of veterinary college. That stint resulted in a job offer after graduation.

So, in 1986, she entered private practice in South Hamilton, Massachusetts, under Dr. Simensen. Her days were spent at Suffolk Downs in the morning and working with eventing horses in the afternoon. She enjoyed working with the two types of athletes.

He also encouraged her to become accredited by the International Federation for Equestrian Sports, which she has been since 1998. She previously had competed in their events.

“It was a terrific experience. I hold him as an example of what we all want to do and aspire to as a veterinarian, a mentor, and as a person,” she said.

Staying ahead of the curve

Dr. Anderson had dreamed of being in an ownership position with him, but Suffolk Downs closed in 1989. Eventually, she left New England for the Mid-Atlantic, where she worked in an associate position before establishing an equine veterinary care relief service that served 25 practices in five states. Now, she owns one of those practices.

Relief practice required her to observe each clinic, allowing Dr. Anderson to learn and assimilate the various management styles as well as learn the differences among states with regard to rules and regulations. It also helped her create a great network base among clients and colleagues.

“And, as a small business owner, I learned that the opportunities were there, you just had to reach for them and go for them,” Dr. Anderson said. “The AAEP was instrumental in practice ownership development for me. My entire career has dovetailed with what I’ve learned from AAEP resources and technology.”

It’s giving confidence and offering a hand. The information they need to get has to be from seeing how it works and having role models.

Dr. Kathy Anderson, 2016 AAEP president, on helping veterinary students see the benefits of practice ownership

Providing innovative services is another tried-and-true method, Dr. Anderson says, that has allowed her to grow her practice. When she first started on her own in the early 1990s, no one was doing ambulatory ultrasound in the Mid-Atlantic. So, she bought a portable ultrasound machine, honed her skills, and went to the local racetracks and marketed her service.

When the equine stomach ulcer product GastroGard came out in 2005, she bought a gastroscope so she could properly diagnose stomach ulcers to justify the medicine. And, when digital radiography debuted, she recognized that it would be a game changer in on-site veterinary diagnostics.

“Right now, we’re at the cutting edge on dynamic video endoscopy. I’m excited where that’s headed with performance horses. But all of those things cost money, so it’s incumbent on a practice owner to combine the want list with the how-to list. You’ve got to market a new service for clients to see the value,” she said.

Big decisions

Dr. Anderson says the economic challenges veterinary students face are an area of concern for the AAEP but too big for the association to tackle alone.

“The AVMA is tackling it, and we support that,” she said. “The eternal question is ‘Do new veterinary graduates have to have an internship to get a job?’ That depends on the person.”

When she graduated, a veterinary graduate’s first job was often as an associate. Since then, the trend for recent graduates going into equine medicine has been to serve internships prior to practice. She says now, students who do externships with her increasingly say they’re not serving an internship, because of economic pressure, so it seems the pendulum is swinging back to the middle.

Dr. Anderson, while supportive of students’ desire to go into practice rather than an internship, stopped short of saying the AAEP would do something similar to what to the American Animal Hospital Association did. The association announced early in 2015 it would begin voluntary accreditation of internship and mentorship programs at AAHA-accredited hospitals.

2016 AAEP officers
The 2016 AAEP officers: Drs. G. Kent Carter, immediate past president; Kathy Anderson, president; R. Reynolds Cowles, president-elect; Margo Macpherson, vice president; and Jack Easley, treasurer. (Courtesy of AAEP)

“The AAEP certainly has a listing of externships and internships. And we are adding the ability for students to answer a questionnaire on their experiences with those positions. But we’re not in a position to regulate how those externships and internships are operated,” she said.

Recent graduates want a job where they’re mentored, valued, and invested in for the long term, Dr. Anderson said.

“The trick is always finding a practice that will provide that transition with mentoring. A new graduate is not necessarily an income machine their first year, but maybe by the second year,” she added. Practice owners just have to be willing to give them a chance.