Q&A with the AVMA president-elect candidates

Drs. Strother and Topper on who is the best person for the job
Published on
information-circle This article is more than 3 years old

When the AVMA House of Delegates meets in San Antonio on Aug. 5, delegates will elect either Dr. Jan K. Strother of Hartselle, Alabama, or Dr. Michael J. Topper of Harleysville, Pennsylvania, as next in line for the AVMA presidency.

Dr. Strother received her DVM degree from Tuskegee University in 1986. She is vice chair of the American Veterinary Medical Foundation board of directors as well as Alabama’s delegate to the HOD. The former AVMA vice president is founder and hospital director of the North Alabama Cat & Bird Veterinary Clinic, a multidoctor companion and exotic animal practice.

Dr. Topper graduated from the University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine in 1980. He is Pennsylvania’s delegate to the HOD and a past chair of the AVMA House Advisory Committee. The U.S. Army Veterinary Corps veteran is currently director of clinical pathology for Merck Research Laboratories in West Point, Pennsylvania. Dr. Topper previously oversaw the Division of Pathology at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research.

The 2016-2017 AVMA president-elect candidates explain in the following interviews why they’re ready to lead the Association.

Why are you running for AVMA president?

Dr. Strother
Dr. Jan K. Strother

Dr. Strother responds:

I have chosen to be a candidate because of my commitment to our veterinary profession, my broad experience, and my faith in our AVMA. I have been involved in organized medicine since graduating from Tuskegee University College of Veterinary Medicine in 1986. My graduating class was the first class with more women students than men, so I was really on the ground floor when our professional demographics began to change.

I learned a lot about good communication regarding our veterinary profession while creating a marketing and public relations committee for the Alabama VMA. I worked my way through various officer positions and served as the first female president of the association. I was elected to the (now sunset) AVMA Council on Public Relations and was honored to serve as council chair. After the COPR, I served as the Alabama VMA alternate delegate in the House of Delegates.

My clinic supported many student preceptorships and externs while working closely with the student chapters of the AVMA for Tuskegee and Auburn universities’ veterinary colleges. It was a natural step for me to run for AVMA vice president. (The vice president is the AVMA’s liaison to the Student AVMA and student chapters.) During the two terms I served as vice president, I visited every AVMA Council on Education–accredited veterinary college in the U.S. and the Caribbean, the Atlantic Veterinary College in Canada, and the University of Glasgow in Scotland. That experience provided me with a broad perspective relative to veterinary education and has allowed me to forge long-lasting relationships and friendships with students, faculty, and administrators. I am now Alabama’s HOD delegate and vice chair of the American Veterinary Medical Foundation’s board of directors. Through these broad leadership experiences, I have honed my skills and talents to be an effective president-elect. Every president should be prepared to meet the needs and expectations of members while promoting and expanding the role of veterinarians in our communities and globally.

As a practitioner and a practice owner with a proven record of volunteer service in organized veterinary medicine, I will bring strategic vision to our Association with a practical approach.

Dr. Jan K. Strother

Why are you the best candidate?

As a practitioner and a practice owner with a proven record of volunteer service in organized veterinary medicine, I will bring strategic vision to our Association with a practical approach. My leadership strengths include consensus building, encouraging and nurturing new leaders, and developing creative and meaningful opportunities to promote our veterinary profession and the valuable work that veterinarians provide every day to help and care for animals and people. My years of volunteer service have taught me that our AVMA is a grassroots, bottom-up organization. Despite the differences within our various disciplines, our Association is stronger, more engaged, and more effective when we prioritize efforts to utilize the talents of our volunteer leaders dedicated to a member-driven AVMA.

What are the opportunities and challenges facing veterinarians and veterinary students?

I believe today is a great time to be a veterinarian. The public’s demand for animal care and welfare is at an all-time high. Globally, the need for veterinary services has increased markedly over the past 20 years. The veterinary markets for food production, food security, public health, and one health will continue to expand as the world’s population increases. The need for biomedical discovery has never been greater. Our DVM degree is ideal for the science and research required in comparative biomedical work. Through current and future one-health initiatives, there are many opportunities to partner with our human medical colleagues in translational medicine and bench and clinical research. Innovation, specialization, hospital design, and ownership structures within our veterinary profession have brought medical techniques, treatments, and specialized equipment to a much larger public. Veterinary practice ownership still provides a comfortable income and financial security for many. Business models and tools to help practitioners with their small business are more abundant today than ever before.

The veterinary profession also faces numerous challenges, however, and the need for a strong and collaborative national association like the AVMA has never been more critical. There is no doubt that veterinary student debt is a critical issue. The cost of our education is expensive, with a debt-to-income ratio currently at about 2:1. The challenge is to ensure that veterinary education is a valuable investment worth the cost. An education, even an excellent one, that has an expense which exceeds its expected return is unsustainable and becomes a recipe for financial distress. The Wellness Roundtable convened by the AVMA in March of this year began to take the first steps to better understand major causes of wellness issues among veterinarians and veterinary students. This is a priority issue for our students and recent graduates, as they may be the most vulnerable. However, wellness problems can affect anyone at any time. We must dedicate ourselves to making our profession healthier in order to be able to do our very best for our animal patients.

What steps would you take as AVMA president to increase the Association’s value to members?

Better and simplified communication options between our grassroots membership and AVMA leadership is one way I would promote greater member value. This would include secure communications between AVMA members and their representatives in the House of Delegates and on the Board of Directors as well as with our council and committee members.

Many members do not realize the breadth, variety, and quality of AVMA’s products, services, and programs. All of the products and services can be accessed through the website, but our leadership could have talking points or informative presentations to promote interest and appreciation for the family of AVMA products and services when speaking to member constituent groups.

I would continue to invest in leadership development for all facets of our veterinary profession and encourage broader collaborations with active and knowledgeable groups like the Women’s Veterinary Leadership Development Initiative, the AVMA Future Leaders Program, the emerging leaders (five to 15 years post graduation), the Student AVMA, the Power of Ten, and more. I would like to expand leadership mentorship opportunities for young graduates, particularly for those in our changing demographics and new leaders who bring diversity to the leadership table.

Now is the time to bring increased member value to those new leaders and our state and allied associations by developing what I call the “Next Step in Leadership” program. It is so important to continue the synergy and momentum of new leaders. This program will provide ways to nurture new leaders and put them to work on projects such as wellness, advocacy, and diversity that will benefit our entire profession.

Many of our challenges are generated by a lack of public awareness and knowledge about our profession. As president, I would promote the formation of a national public relations/marketing campaign that demonstrates the value of our profession to the public. I believe this type of public campaign is overdue. AVMA is now well-positioned to take an active role in representing our profession to the public and to the consumers of our services. As we create public interest and appreciation for the value that the veterinary profession provides, the desire and demand for veterinary care and more strategic services will follow. This type of campaign has the potential to improve many aspects of our profession. As (we are) the umbrella organization for the profession, it is vital that we do so.

What, if anything, can the AVMA do to improve the debt-to-income ratio for recent veterinary graduates?

AVMA can promote corporate and public practice careers to students and recent graduates as alternatives to private practice. AVMA can provide a focus on preventative care in veterinary medicine, such as (through) Partners for Healthy Pets, as a service industry that would enhance the marketability of recent graduates. Bringing additional skills to the private practice setting and building more profitable wellness programs for employers could have an impact on debt-to-income ratio by increasing salaries. AVMA can develop onboarding programs that would help transition recent graduates into better earning power for the first few years after graduation. There is a need for resources for both new graduates and employers. Programs for employers may focus on improved productivity, efficiency, and collaboration with new graduates. Onboarding programs for recent graduates should include developing communication, stress management, and business and clinical skills, as these may influence a new graduate’s ability to become a profitable producer.

What are your thoughts on the continuing expansion of veterinary schools?

Many economic factors point to an increasingly competitive market for veterinary colleges, with greater competition for employment after graduation. Consequently, we will have higher debt-to-income ratios for many graduates. Thanks to collaborative efforts from the AVMA Veterinary Economics Division and others, we are receiving valuable information regarding our profession’s economic health. It is important that we share this information with our veterinary colleges, members, and other invested stakeholders. While the AVMA may express an opinion relative to the creation of new veterinary colleges, it is the responsibility of each state, and college or university, to determine the economic viability and professional need.

What experience and skills should the next AVMA CEO possess?

The next CEO will need to have the ability to manage a large and diverse staff along with hundreds of volunteer leaders. She or he should have an exceptional ability to communicate well with many different internal and external publics, staff, and media. The CEO will need the skill to build thoughtful relationships and positive energy among generations, which will encourage inclusivity and sustainability for our Association. She or he should have the inherent understanding that our Association must continue to be a member-driven organization. Our next CEO should also possess a hopeful attitude, great enthusiasm for our veterinary profession, patience with those who are often impatient, grace in dealing with critics, and a healthy sense of humor to carry her or him through long days.

What does a more diverse veterinary profession mean to you, and what should AVMA’s involvement be in that?

Diversity within the veterinary profession is lagging way behind, compared to other medical professions. We are considered the least inclusive of all medical professions. Our nation and the global community are rapidly changing demographically. A more diverse veterinary workforce will be needed for societal sustainability and relevance. AVMA is committed to promoting diversity within our profession and has taken steps to encourage this. To accelerate practical strategies for diversity involving race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, culture, and religion, the AVMA could also partner with organizations and veterinary colleges that have developed outreach programs geared toward recruitment of underrepresented students and graduates. This would be a good step, but more work will be needed.

The AVMA is investigating creating an international activities division or department. What are your thoughts on the Association’s global efforts, and how do they benefit members?

A global perspective provides opportunities to put one-health initiatives into focus. It allows the AVMA to communicate with other international medical colleagues and experts.

Being a part of a global veterinary community allows AVMA members to understand the importance of continuing education so that veterinarians are knowledgeable and vigilant in monitoring, reporting, and controlling animal and zoonotic diseases globally. AVMA members and veterinarians across the world benefit from a U.S. presence in internationally recognized organizations such as the World Veterinary Association and others. It is important that the AVMA continue to have a strong and collective voice in international veterinary affairs.

Why are you running for AVMA president?

Dr. Topper
Dr. Michael J. Topper

Dr. Topper responds:

These are times of great change and many challenges for AVMA and the veterinary profession. However, challenges also create new opportunities for increased member engagement and improvement in how the Association acts on behalf of the entire breadth of the veterinary profession. I will be an integral part of addressing these challenges as president. Serving as president, I would be afforded the opportunity to interact with the entire spectrum of our profession by representing the AVMA at national and international meetings and conferences. These interactions are critical to understanding, firsthand, the concerns of our members. I will bring those concerns back to the leadership team for consideration of possible resolutions, and follow up with directed and effective communication to our members. We must move forward together in order to protect, promote, and advance as one to better the veterinary profession.

Why are you the best candidate?

My career practicing veterinary medicine and serving organized veterinary medicine has been diverse. After engaging in clinical practice, preventive medicine, food safety, and biological and chemical defense as a military veterinarian for 22 years, I transitioned to a career in medical research as a veterinary pathologist. In this role, I have been able to support the development of new products that improve veterinary and human health. My experience with organized veterinary medicine includes leadership positions with AVMA’s House Advisory Committee, House of Delegates, and other governance and member services committees; the District of Columbia and Pennsylvania VMAs; the American College of Veterinary Pathologists; and the University of Georgia CVM Alumni Association. My career pathway and organized veterinary medicine experience, as well as the training I received in the military and human pharmaceutical industry, have taught me to be a forward-thinking, strategic, and inclusive leader. This allows me to bring value to AVMA’s senior leadership team by offering a diverse and unique professional perspective on the issues facing us that is not currently found on the Board of Directors.

What are the opportunities and challenges facing veterinarians and veterinary students?

The opportunities for veterinarians are endless because we are trained to be the most versatile comparative scientists in the world. Unfortunately, some of the opportunities are limited by things such as public practice jobs that are not currently open to veterinarians, economic challenges facing the profession, and the debt load of students and recent graduates. Because of the diverse expertise veterinarians bring to the workforce, AVMA should use its strength to advocate for the creation of new public practice jobs for veterinarians in state and federal government, for greater responsibilities in existing public practice jobs that veterinarians hold, and for other health care–related jobs in regulatory fields to be opened to veterinarians. This is an economic growth area for the profession, and these positions often come with some form of loan repayment or forgiveness. AVMA is working diligently to educate veterinarians and veterinary students on economic matters from budgeting and managing debt to increasing practice profitability. These, along with efforts to reduce the debt-to-income ratio, will enable veterinarians to take advantage of the new opportunities presented to them. Additional challenges that may influence the ability to pursue new opportunities are wellness issues. Debt, poor-paying jobs, and unfavorable work-life balance all contribute to wellness issues. The AVMA must be the go-to resource for educating its members on this complex topic and become a clearinghouse of information and available resources to assist individuals and local associations overcome these challenges.

My career pathway and organized veterinary medicine experience, as well as the training I received in the military and human pharmaceutical industry, have taught me to be a forward-thinking, strategic, and inclusive leader.

Dr. Michael J. Topper

What steps would you take as AVMA president to increase the Association’s value to members?

With the development of our Strategic Plan and its primary goal of growing AVMA member value, and the implementation of that plan via the Strategy Management Process, I believe we are well on our way to seeing member value increase. One of the things that the Association is still struggling with is how to effectively communicate the value and benefits of the AVMA to the members in a way that they can better appreciate it, and in a manner that they want to receive it. There are many sources of information about the AVMA available to our members, such as JAVMA, email, and the website, but we do not know if the message is being properly received. Using ever-evolving technology, we have to ask the individual member, “What is important to you?” and then deliver the personalized message back to them of: “Did you know that the AVMA does this for you?” Once the members appreciate this personalized communication on how the AVMA directly benefits them and the profession, we will have made them aware of the value of being a member.

What, if anything, can the AVMA do to improve the debt-to-income ratio for recent veterinary graduates?

AVMA must continue to keep debt-to-income ratio reduction as one of its major goals, as it has a direct effect on the value of the veterinary degree. It is critical that the AVMA continue to serve in a leadership role in the discussions on this issue with the many involved stakeholders: veterinary colleges, students, hiring veterinarians, and governmental agencies. The recent Fix the Debt Summit is a perfect example of this effort. The AVMA’s Veterinary Economics Division must continue its outstanding job of providing research and education to the profession on this and other related economic issues. The debt and income issues are complex and multifactorial. A better understanding of the root causes will allow all the stakeholders to work collaboratively toward a reduction in student debt.

What are your thoughts on the continuing expansion of veterinary schools?

At the present time, I believe the current total number of veterinary school seats is adequate. There have been a declining number of applicants per available position, and if the number of seats increases, it is possible that there will be a greater difficulty in filling those positions with quality applicants. Lowering the quality of the applicants may result in new graduates being inadequately prepared to enter the workforce.

What experience and skills should the next AVMA CEO possess?

The CEO must be an effective facilitator, consensus builder, and communicator, as he or she will be the interface between the volunteer leadership and the staff. The CEO should also be innovative, be optimistic, and have a desire to be a lifelong learner. It is essential that the CEO be skilled at listening, sensing, and observing in order to make informed and timely decisions. In his or her decision-making process, the CEO must be able to involve others and promote a culture in which we all work as a team in order to achieve the AVMA’s goals and objectives.

What does a more diverse veterinary profession mean to you, and what should AVMA’s involvement be in that?

The veterinary profession is already extremely diverse “genotypically” with regard to the many career pathways available to veterinarians—for example, private clinical practice, or public practice in such areas as government, military, medical research and development, industry, and academia. We are not as diverse “phenotypically” by being as representative of the public/clients that we serve. We have to do better in this area. The AVMA, working in collaboration with other veterinary organizations like (the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges), must continue to work diligently to promote veterinary medicine as a viable career choice to underrepresented minorities, using outreach and educational programs. Additionally, because we are a diverse membership by career pathway, we must retain members that feel AVMA is not relevant for them anymore. We must regain their confidence and prove that, while we are a diverse group, we want inclusiveness for our members, and we are stronger when we all respect each other and work together.

The AVMA is investigating creating an international activities division or department. What are your thoughts on the Association’s global efforts, and how do they benefit members?

The AVMA must be a global leader in all aspects of veterinary medicine and in one health. Zoonotic and animal diseases, agro- and bioterrorism, food safety and security, and other issues in which veterinarians play a critical role do not respect national boundaries. They demand a global veterinary effort to prevent, or to act against if preventive measures are not successful. Failure in these efforts will have a direct impact on the economy and the viability of veterinary practices. The AVMA must have a leadership role in developing international policy and guidelines in such areas as animal welfare, animal transportation, disease mitigation, and humane euthanasia for disease control. Our economy is dependent on global political and economic events that are influenced by international regulations. Therefore, it is critical that the interests of our members be represented by AVMA in the creation of these international policies and regulations.

Are there other issues you want to discuss?

Leadership development is my specific passion. We must do more in this critical area, in general; but specifically in the area of team building and team leadership skills for the veterinary business owner. Large corporate practices provide it to their veterinarians, and we must provide these same opportunities for the independent practitioners and their staff. This will serve them well in all aspects of their careers, from being a better leader of their practice team to being a community leader. AVMA must be the center of excellence for veterinary leadership development for our next generation of leaders!

2016 is the 100th anniversary of the U.S. Army Veterinary Corps, and I want to wish a happy anniversary and say “thank you” to all current and former members. It was my distinct pleasure to have served for 22 of these 100 years with the dedicated men and women who provide vital veterinary medical services for our national defense.

Related JAVMA content:

Pulling together to lower the debt-to-income ratio (June 15, 2016)

AVMA's global, diversity activities could expand (June 1, 2016)

Army Veterinary Corps marks 100 years of service (June 1, 2016)

Veterinary wellness roundtable advances conversation (May 1, 2016)

DeHaven to retire as AVMA CEO (March 1, 2016)

House of Delegates will reach out to AVMA members by email (March 1, 2016)

AVMA strengthens support for women in leadership (Jan. 15, 2016)

Taking the leap (July 1, 2015)

Senators, academics, others embrace one-health approach (April 15, 2015)