A short lesson on AVMA policy

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Dr. Mark Helfat, chair of the AVMA Board of Directors, recently sat down with JAVMA News to answer questions about what AVMA policies are, how they’re created, and why they’re important.

What is meant by AVMA policy?

Not long ago, I sat down with a group of AVMA members, and they asked me the same question. When you consider that our Association has some 250 policies that run the spectrum of issues from animal welfare to food safety to antimicrobials to general practice, one is overwhelmed by the abundance of work and time which lies behind each and every topic.

All of these policies may be broken down into three categories. Professional policies provide recommendations and guidance with regard to the practice of our profession. Some examples would be the policies on ear cropping in dogs and the dehorning of cattle. There are also endorsed policies, which are policies formulated by other professional veterinary groups and endorsed by the AVMA. One example would be the American Association of Bovine Practitioners/AVMA Judicious Therapeutic Use of Antimicrobials in Cattle. Lastly, administrative policies are developed to guide the internal and administrative functions of the Association. The Board of Directors Manual would exemplify such a typical policy.

Why does the AVMA have policy?

Dr. Mark Helfat
Dr. Mark Helfat

Being that this Association is a professional organization and is member-driven, it is, in fact, a member benefit for all of us to have this resource at our fingertips. These policies are designed to be guiding principles on the practice of veterinary medicine, and the AVMA encourages its membership to voluntarily adhere to them. The key word here is “voluntarily.” The Association does not mandate or demand compliance, it merely presents what our peers would consider best practice.

One exception that I will mention is the Association’s Principles of Veterinary Medical Ethics. These principles might also be considered policy, and on rare occasion, are referred to with regard to considering disciplinary action over a member’s membership status.

I would point out as well that some of these policies are used in our advocacy efforts to support the best interests of our 90,000 members. A perfect example is the AVMA policy on soring, which is our guiding document in our legislative and administrative push to ban this practice. I similarly would point to the AVMA policy on feline declawing as an example of where we stand as an Association on this topic and why we are opposed to various legislative initiatives as of late.

One shouldn’t forget that other groups disagree with our guidelines and would like to be considered the expert on some of these animal welfare issues. It is the responsibility of the AVMA to formulate policy with our members’ best interests in mind and to proceed appropriately as the scientific leader in veterinary medicine.

One final point is that none of these policies is intended to stand above the law or established regulations. However, there will be times when policy is formulated in an effort to suggest changes to existing or proposed legislation.

How is policy made?

Policy may be formulated by any AVMA volunteer entity, such as a committee or council, the AVMA House of Delegates, or the Board of Directors, or even by petition when submitted by a group of members. All new policy, or suggested changes to existing policy, must be approved by the House of Delegates or the Board of Directors, depending upon which body has jurisdiction as defined in the bylaws.

In January, at the Chicago winter meeting, the AVMA House of Delegates deliberated on a proposed policy—Inherited Disorders in Responsible Breeding of Companion Animals. It was exciting to see this policy, which originated with the Animal Welfare Committee, be introduced onto the House floor. Delegates spent hours debating, amending, and finally accepting a final version that now stands as AVMA policy.

Does policy ever change, and do members have a voice in the process?

Yes and yes! As previously mentioned, any group of members may introduce a new policy onto the floor of the House of Delegates as defined in the bylaws. Similarly, the membership is represented by delegates in the House and by members on the Board of Directors. Any member may certainly suggest new policy, or changes to existing policy, to any of these leaders.

Finally, by going on the AVMA website and pulling up any policy, a member can leave comments and receive prompt feedback by staff.

Each policy, in fact, periodically comes up for review by the entity considered its custodian. These policies, as they come up for review, are highlighted on the website to note that members are particularly encouraged to provide comments so that their concerns may be relayed to the entity during its upcoming deliberation. Also, it is not unusual for a policy to be removed when the intent of the document is no longer of value or of relevance to the membership.