John de Jong wants to make AVMA a household name

Candidate for AVMA president-elect hopes to raise Association’s status
Published on May 31, 2017
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After more than two decades of volunteer service with the AVMA, Dr. John de Jong says he’s ready for the organization’s most visible office. As the sole candidate for 2017-18 AVMA president-elect, Dr. de Jong is expected to be elected by the AVMA House of Delegates this July and succeed Dr. Michael Topper as president next year. The small animal practitioner from Weston, Massachusetts, and 1985 graduate of the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University recently spoke to JAVMA News about his plans if he becomes AVMA president and the state of veterinary medicine as he sees it.

What do you hope to accomplish as AVMA president?

My hope would be to continue the good work of my predecessors and the organization as a whole to protect, promote, and advance the veterinary profession.

During my years on the Board of Directors, we began listening more to our members, becoming a member-driven organization. That is exactly what we must be doing. We also must be mindful of the fact that the AVMA cannot be everything to everybody, so it is imperative that we focus on what is important to the members. Our members have repeatedly identified advocacy, education, and economics as the top three areas where they want the AVMA to work on their behalf. It is these three pillars on which I will focus my efforts should I be honored to be elected. Needless to say, we must also work on wellness, increasing professional diversity, and so much more.

Dr. John de JongThe AVMA has served the profession, its members, and the public for over 150 years and is unquestionably the global leader in organized veterinary medicine. Today, our profession faces many daunting challenges, most especially concerning its economic health. We even face challenges from within our own profession over who will speak on veterinarians’ behalf. We must ensure that the AVMA—an organization that has served us well for so many generations of veterinarians—continues as our primary voice! In recent years, we have done a much better job of being a member-driven organization. If we continue to do so, then there is no veterinary group, association, or conference that can match what the AVMA can do.

We must stay united as a profession, through the AVMA, working collaboratively to maintain progressive and open-minded relevance and success while holding true to our core values of ethics, professionalism, fair and decent care, promoting animal welfare, and listening to our members.

We desperately need to be a bigger national presence, and I look forward to the day when most of the American public knows what the acronym AVMA stands for and (the AVMA) is on a par with the AMA, the ADA, and the ABA.

Dr. John de Jong, candidate for 2017-18 AVMA president-elect

What skills and experience do you bring to the office?

More than two decades of participating in organized veterinary medicine, I believe, have helped prepare me for this important position. Working at the state, regional, and national levels has created in me an appreciation for the complexities and challenges of our profession. Eighteen years of volunteer service with the AVMA—first in the HOD and on the (House Advisory Committee), then as a member of the Board of Directors, including a year as its chair—have hopefully prepared me well to represent our diverse membership. Personally, I have boundless energy and enthusiasm for our great profession. I listen well, I try to be balanced yet bold when needed, I am honest, and I say what I mean.

What do you see as the role of the AVMA president?

The role of the AVMA president is multifaceted. First and foremost is the responsibility to be the face and voice of the profession to the public both nationally and internationally. This is spelled out in our bylaws. Secondly, the position carries additional responsibilities as a voting member of the Board of Directors, and, as president-elect, one chairs the sessions of the HOD.

This year, I have gained a somewhat different perspective of our profession as a candidate for office and not a member of AVMA leadership. We desperately need to be a bigger national presence, and I look forward to the day when most of the American public knows what the acronym AVMA stands for and (the AVMA) is on a par with the AMA, the ADA, and the ABA. The office of AVMA president can potentially achieve that by being increasingly vocal and visible through strong public relations, marketing, and advocacy like the honor I had last year testifying in Congress on behalf of our AVMA against the Fairness to Pet Owners Act.

I envision the AVMA president as our primary spokesperson, appearing on television and radio with a calf or chicken to promote veterinary medicine by talking about food safety, public health, epidemiology, and the human-animal bond. If the public gains a better appreciation for the breadth of what we do, then we eventually can earn more respect and financial compensation. It is a noble challenge, and I know we can achieve this because after all, people love their animals, and we are the caretakers of their animals.

In your mind, what are the opportunities and challenges facing the U.S. veterinary profession?

The opportunities and challenges are both unique and yet are inextricably intertwined. We need to regain our trusted leadership role in the area of animal welfare, which has been somewhat usurped by well-intended but often emotionally driven individuals or groups. We must maintain our leadership in this and so many other areas by advocating for policies based on science, and we should always promote that. We need to promote our profession while inspiring young people to consider all the career options in veterinary medicine, paying special attention to underserved practice areas, research, epidemiology, and one health, while also ensuring that rural areas are a prosperous place for veterinarians to practice.

A major challenge we have always faced is veterinarians have never been compensated fairly compared to our human health care colleagues. The reality is that veterinarians have often undervalued themselves, and we need to change that culture by cheerleading more for ourselves.

Veterinarians have repeatedly overcome zoonotic disease challenges, making the American food supply the safest and cheapest in the world. Unfortunately, the public does not fully appreciate all the veterinary profession does to protect our public health and food supply.

Another member concern is the consolidation and corporatization of our profession. What will that mean to private practices? Workforce issues are nothing new to veterinary medicine, but practice owners report increasing difficulties hiring personnel, both veterinarians and paraprofessional staff. Also, the trend toward specialization will likely continue to strain general practices. Last but not least, we must protect ourselves from letting people outside our veterinary profession or those who do not work with our direct supervision from providing services that only we should.

What’s your assessment of the AVMA’s continuing efforts directed at increasing member value?

I have been gratified that we are making strides in the right direction. We advocate nationally and assist states and allied groups in their legislative and regulatory efforts. Our insurance trusts provide a good value and are exploring ways of providing more. Our veterinary economic division, only a few years old, has provided members with valuable information that can be leveraged toward improving their incomes. Concerns about the Council on Education have resulted in improvements to the accreditation processes. Moreover, we are experiencing an unprecedented level of collaboration with the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges, veterinary students, and our allied groups. United we stand stronger!

Is there more the AVMA can do to promote the veterinary profession and educate the public about everything veterinarians do for animals as well as society?

Hell, yeah! I think I have already covered that. Not only should the AVMA president, officers, Board members, House members, and volunteers speak up, but all veterinarians need to avail themselves of promoting our profession through traditional media channels, social media, and all means possible. People love animals, and we are the go-to people for their care.

Realistically, what can the AVMA do to help ease the educational debt burden on recent veterinary graduates? What about increasing starting salaries?

This is a complex and difficult issue. If we begin by improving the appreciation the public has for veterinarians, incomes can increase and we can pay doctors a better wage. Paying new graduates more is not that simple because it has to come from somewhere, and experienced veterinarians aren’t making enough, either. The AVMA already advocates in Congress for the reduction of student debt. All veterinarians need to speak up, however, at all levels of government to provide better funding for veterinary education. This is just one good reason why we should all support AVMA’s (Political Action Committee). We need to be creative in funding veterinary education so as to reduce student costs. However, this problem is not just affecting veterinary medicine but higher education as a whole.

The veterinary profession was once entirely made up of men. Now the pendulum is swinging in the opposite direction. What are your thoughts on veterinary medicine becoming a predominately female profession?

I just returned from a meeting where I heard two veterinary school deans articulate exactly how I feel about this topic. I do not think it is any more appropriate to be female-dominated than to be male-dominated. There should be no disparity in income between the genders for the same work, and if we promote our profession and educate young students at an early age as well as provide a reasonable income and lifestyle, then perhaps we can have better balance.

How do you see telemedicine and telehealth changing the practice of veterinary medicine in the coming years?

The train has already left the station in some respects, yet I believe that the integrity of the veterinarian-client-patient relationship must be maintained. This rapidly evolving area of technology is one that we need to embrace and not fight since it is inevitably going to happen. How we let that occur is up to us.

A few years ago, AVMA leadership attempted to reform the Association’s governance structure, from the Board of Directors and House of Delegates to councils and committees. Those efforts largely came to naught. Is this something that should be revisited or not?

Candidly, I do not think it entirely came to naught. We convened two advisory panels that looked at bringing individuals from different entities together; the experiment worked and might be revisited. There have been governance changes on the Board with expansion of the Board of Governors, a strategic management process, a new budgeting process, and more, making for a more efficient, responsive, and effective Board. The HOD also has undergone some changes with the makeup of the HAC going from (members representing) categories to all at-large members. Councils and committees also now have a more uniform system of term lengths. Students are more integrally involved, and all entities are constantly reviewed on a regular basis. AVMA governance must always be adaptable to change to serve the membership as needed.

Is there anything else you want to discuss?

A few years ago, my wife asked me what I got out of organized veterinary medicine. The answer came to me in a flash. Besides the countless close friendships I have made and the professional collegiality working together to make a difference for our profession, it is (continuing education) on steroids. By being involved in organized veterinary medicine, I have learned far more than I would have by simply being in practice, and as such, it has been intellectually fulfilling.

I hope that together we can ensure the survival, growth, and success of organized veterinary medicine and the AVMA. In 2015, the AVMA launched a new brand that included the words, “Our Passion. Our Profession.” It is with that same optimistic and new, yet timeless approach that I urge all members to get involved, for together our passion for our profession can and will be the future of the AVMA. It will be my great honor and privilege to serve the AVMA, our profession, and my colleagues as AVMA president.

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