AAHA Connexity takes on topics that keep veterinarians up at night

Conference themed on connecting, community covers practice management, personal well-being
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The American Animal Hospital Association took a radically new approach to its annual conference this year. It forewent scientific subjects in favor of topics in practice management and personal well-being such as improving workplace culture, finding a balance between caring for others and caring for oneself, and marketing a practice's charitable activities.

AAHA Connexity, Sept. 12-16 in Denver, was an interactive conference for individuals from AAHA-accredited hospitals, with themes of connecting and community. AAHA limited attendance at Connexity, and the conference attracted a total of 619 attendees.

AAHA Connexity attendees
Attendees pick a target at random during a session on "Leading your Team with Purpose" by Debbie Boone at AAHA Connexity, the revamped conference from the American Animal Hospital Association. If a practice owner doesn't give team members a specific target, Boone said, then they will choose their own. (Courtesy of AAHA)

Ahead of the conference, AAHA released the publication, "Promoting Preventive Care Protocols: Evidence, Enactment, and Economics." An analysis of Idexx Laboratories Inc. preventive care screening profiles from more than 5,000 practices found that for animals in all adult life stages, laboratory testing included in these screenings regularly yielded results that potentially warranted further action (see story).

During the conference, Dr. Darren Taul assumed the office of AAHA president (see story), and the association presented its AAHA-Accredited Practice of the Year Award (see story).

AAHA news

Dr. Michael Cavanaugh, AAHA chief executive officer, gave an update on AAHA news during the first keynote address. He said the association is closing in on 4,500 accredited practices as members.

In October 2016, the association had announced that it was discontinuing hospital membership for nonaccredited practices. Nonaccredited AAHA member hospitals had until the end of June 2017 to enter into an agreement to become an accredited practice or to have a staff member become an individual member. As of Sept. 24, the association's membership encompassed a little more than 4,300 accredited practices as well as 5,680 individuals.

Dr. Cavanaugh also announced the new AAHA Pet Health Insurance Program through Petplan and the new AAHA Pet Wellness Plans through VCP. He said the goal is to take difficult financial conversations off the table as part of the AAHA Healthy Workplace Culture Initiative.

According to an AAHA announcement, the insurance program is designed to help clients pay for unexpected expenses associated with illnesses and accidents. Petplan will handle enrollment, underwriting, and claims management for the AAHA Pet Health Insurance Program and provide administrative support.

AAHA Pet Wellness Plans are designed to give clients peace of mind by providing access to important preventive care through affordable monthly payments, according to another announcement from the association. For the past six years, VCP has focused solely on creating comprehensive wellness plans for veterinary practices.

Also as part of the AAHA Healthy Workplace Culture Initiative, Dr. Cavanaugh announced a partnership with Aspire, a company that provides veterinary-specific tools to build a better workplace culture.

Connecting and community

Dr. Heather Loenser, AAHA senior veterinary officer, spoke during the first keynote address about the new conference format.

"We polled our members to find out what was keeping you up at night," Dr. Loenser said. "We designed a conference with you in mind."

Dr. Loenser addresses AAHA Connexity attendees
Dr. Heather Loenser, AAHA senior veterinary officer, speaks during the first keynote address at Connexity. AAHA devoted a day each to healthy practices, healthy leaders, and healthy teams. (Courtesy of AAHA)

Members wanted to learn how to improve workplace culture, increase profitability, manage staff more creatively, decrease drama, and attract new clients. AAHA categorized the concerns into healthy practices, healthy leaders, and healthy teams, and devoted a day to each—along with a last half-day titled "Thank you, go-getters!"

Each day featured a keynote address. Scott Stratten spoke on "UnMarketing: Stop Marketing, Start Engaging." Kevin Brown shared his message that heroes are extraordinary people who choose not to be ordinary. Alexandra Valentin of The Ritz-Carlton Leadership Center presented on "Service Excellence Culture." Curt Coffman concluded the conference with "Culture Eats Strategy for Lunch."

During lunch breaks, attendees could check out experts from the Human Library for up to 15 minutes of personalized coaching on a variety of topics. Connexity also offered options for attendees to recharge, including yoga, fun runs and walks, a kilt run and walk, and a sensory wellness walk.

Workplace culture

Dr. Edward W. Kanara has been a practice owner, has held senior executive positions at Pfizer Animal Health, and is now the managing member of the Kanara Consulting Group. He discussed workplace culture in the session "Culture Transformation: The Most Important Practice Leadership Decision You Will Ever Make" and wrote about the subject in "What Exactly is 'Workplace Culture,' and Why is Everybody Talking About It?," a chapter in AAHA's Guide to Veterinary Practice Team Wellbeing.

"Culture is what results from the diligent adherence to established and expected workplace behaviors determined to be essential for achieving the organization's goals, as well as the avoidance of those behaviors that are deemed unacceptable," Dr. Kanara wrote. "For a culture to thrive, there must also be a reward system in place for expected behaviors, along with appropriate consequences and accountability for unacceptable behavior."

In his talk, Dr. Kanara recommended conducting a confidential survey with the practice team to assess workplace culture, making a plan to address the most important issues, and developing a list of expected and not-tolerated behaviors. Survey questions could include the following:

  • What makes you proud to work here?
  • What specific behaviors should we address to improve our culture?
  • Is there something going on here that if it's not addressed, I may leave?
  • Is there anything we do pretty well now that if we significantly improved, we could really "rock it"?

The session concluded with attendees putting together one-page action plans to take home.


Dr. Kimberly Pope-Robinson spoke on "Polarity: Caring for Others and Ourselves" and wrote the chapter "How to Continue to Find Joy in Veterinary Practice" in AAHA's Guide to Veterinary Practice Team Wellbeing.

Dr. Pope-Robinson
Speaking at AAHA Connexity, Dr. Kimberly Pope-Robinson emphasized countering sinkers with balloons. Sinkers are the thoughts that pull people down, but balloons are whatever pulls people up. (Courtesy of Dr. Pope-Robinson)

As a veterinarian in practice and industry, Dr. Pope-Robinson pushed herself to her breaking point. She went on to write the book "The Unspoken Life: Recognize Your Passion, Embrace Imperfection, and Stay Connected."

In her speaking and writing, she emphasizes countering sinkers with balloons. Sinkers are the thoughts that pull people down, but balloons are whatever pulls people up. Balloons can be mental, physical, emotional, or spiritual.

Dr. Pope-Robinson said balloons are not all about eating right, exercising, meditating, and doing yoga. They could be anything. A lot are in the creative space, such as knitting, doing hula, playing an instrument, drawing, or coloring.

Sinkers in veterinary practice can include hiring and firing, client reviews, branding, staff meetings, clients with no money, profitability concerns, and even finding time to stay current on the literature. General life pressures can include debt, significant others, and scheduling.

Dr. Pope-Robinson proposed taking an oath to honor oneself as a North Star for orientation in conjunction with the Veterinary Oath. The oath to honor oneself has the following four principles:

  • Being mindful of my response.
  • Creating my environment.
  • Embracing my emotions.
  • Finding self-forgiveness.

Dr. Pope-Robinson had been giving all of herself for the Veterinary Oath. Her takeaway for attendees of the session was this: "You're normal, and you're not alone."

Cause marketing

Jane Harrell, president of 'cause Digital Marketing, spoke on "Cause Marketing and the Veterinary Practice." According to her company's 2018 Veterinary Client Study, 81.9 percent of pet owners with a regular veterinarian said seeing their animal hospital do charitable activities would make them more likely to stay and to recommend the hospital, but only 47 percent of all pet owners recognized that veterinary hospitals do anything to help animals beyond strictly paid-for services.

Bar chart: Animal Causes That Clients Care About - Source: 'cause Digital Marketing 2018 Veterinary Client Study

Harrell said cause marketing involves sharing values with clients, actively volunteering to help, and telling people about that volunteer work. The last piece is what's missing at most veterinary practices.

Practice teams feel like they have no time to market their charitable activities, are afraid of opening the floodgates, find talking about good deeds feels weird or like bragging, and believe clients will think the practice is overcharging. Harrell said the only risk that is real is that of being overwhelmed with requests. Practice teams should decide what is important to them, then pick a cause.

After the conference, Harrell reiterated, "The key is picking a cause that you're already contributing to and promoting it in a way that simultaneously limits additional requests."

Cause marketing can save time by providing content for newsletters, social media, blogs, and in-hospital educational materials.

Harrell concluded the session with a workbook on getting started with cause marketing. According to the workbook, the top animal causes that clients care about are pet adoption and spay/neuter.

"It's not about giving something away," Harrell said during the session. "It is about genuinely and authentically letting your community know who you are."

Related JAVMA content:

Analysis looks at Idexx data on preventive care (Nov. 15, 2018)

Taul takes turn at helm of AAHA (Nov. 15, 2018)

AAHA recognizes 2018 accredited practice of the year (Nov. 15, 2018)