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March 15, 2020

Board chair embraces veterinary family ties

Carlson discusses the power in working together, looking ahead
Published on February 26, 2020

Dr. Rena Carlson was elected to a one-year term as chair of the AVMA Board of Directors last July in Washington, D.C. She has held leadership roles since early in her veterinary career and has no intentions of stopping now.

Dr. Carlson
Dr. Rena Carlson, 2019-20 AVMA Board of Directors chair (Photo by R. Scott Nolen)

A 1989 graduate of the Washington State University College of Veterinary Medicine, Dr. Carlson was co-owner for 27 years of Alpine Animal Hospital in Pocatello, Idaho, a mixed animal practice that currently employs six doctors. She has served in numerous leadership positions within the Idaho VMA, including president and board chair, and represented Idaho in the AVMA House of Delegates from 2005 until 2014. In 2014, she became the District IX representative to the AVMA Board, representing AVMA members in Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Washington, and Wyoming.

Recently, Dr. Carlson spoke to JAVMA News about her priorities and how she wants the Board to position the AVMA to support veterinarians for years into the future.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q. What have been your priorities as Board chair?

A. My focus and the Board’s focus is ensuring members receive the most value possible from their AVMA membership. Over the past few years, we focused on early-career veterinarians, equipping them with the tools and resources they need to start careers that are professionally, personally, and financially rewarding. We launched myveterinarylife.org to provide tools related to early-career development, well-being, and financial health.

Now we are expanding that focus to our midcareer folks and independent practitioners, providing tools that can ensure practice profitability and career growth. We recently launched AVMA Direct Connect, a free benefit for members that saves not only time, by reducing the number of hours practices spend ordering, but also a lot of money, through enhanced loyalty rewards. We built this program because we know practices want and need tools to help improve their profitability.

We are also about to celebrate the one-year anniversary of AVMA Axon, our new digital continuing education platform. Already, hundreds of courses have been completed, and we are constantly developing new content.

Lastly, we’re working closely with the AVMA family, including the AVMA Trust, to bring members association health plans and insurance products designed specifically for veterinarians and veterinary practices, and the American Veterinary Medical Foundation, which provides resources such as the Veterinary Care Charitable Fund. This fund is a simple and effective way to offer charitable veterinary services to clients facing personal hardships. Working together on behalf of members, veterinarians, the profession, and the animals we serve is the primary focus of the AVMA family as a whole.

We are focused this year on enhancing the public visibility of the profession, which is something our members tell us is important to them. Last year, we worked with regional and national media outlets and generated close to 15,000 news stories focused on the AVMA and veterinary-related stories. We also used our social media channels to spread the word about the great work AVMA members do each day.

Another priority is making sure the Board is equipped to lead the AVMA in the most effective and efficient way on behalf of our 95,000-plus members. This includes leading the organization’s strategic and financial planning processes so that we are investing in the right programming to help our members succeed well into the future.

Q. What happens now that the technician utilization report has been released?

A. Our main role as a veterinary association is to support the veterinary community as a whole. Fully leveraging technicians is a win-win for all involved—it’s good for practice efficiency and economics, but it’s also essential for the well-being of veterinarians, veterinary technicians, clinic staff, clients, and the animals we treat (see story). Simply put, it’s how we can deliver the highest-quality medicine in a very cost-effective manner and reach as many clients and patients as possible. We provide association management services to NAVTA (the National Association of Veterinary Technicians in America) and care passionately about veterinary technicians. It is essential that veterinary technicians are at the table when addressing the key issues we are all facing, so we are very committed to NAVTA.

Q. What do you see as the AVMA’s biggest strength?

A. Our greatest strength is our members. This is a great profession, and three out of four veterinarians are AVMA members. Standing together, we are able to address key issues with a clear and deliberate voice, protecting the profession in terms of advocacy, policy development, and key issues. We are truly powered by our members, and because of our members, we are able to make meaningful contributions to the profession as well as provide valuable tools to every individual member.

We also have passionate and dedicated volunteers, and the collaboration between volunteer leadership and staff working together to deliver member value is truly remarkable. Thanks to our structure of volunteer leadership, everyone has a voice, from our leaders on the Board, each of whom represents a district from across the U.S.; to our House of Delegates, made up of representatives from state and allied organizations; to our councils and committees, composed of volunteers from across the country. This ensures we work on issues in a collaborative way that ultimately builds consensus and a unified perspective.

Lastly, we are the trusted convener. We work with organizations across the profession and beyond to make sure the veterinary perspective is prioritized. Policy development and legislative advocacy are some of the important things we do to protect the profession—from our Ambassador Program to legislative fly-ins to maintaining important relationships on Capitol Hill. We have lots of outreach to ensure the veterinary perspective is included.

Q. How was the decision made to donate money to Australian bushfire relief efforts?

A. This is a good example of the AVMA family working together to help those in need.

The Board approved a $25,000 donation from the AVMA along with a $50,000 matching donation from the American Veterinary Medical Foundation to the Australian Veterinary Association’s Benevolent Fund. Members and the public were incredibly responsive and generous, and we raised funds to provide a total of over $125,000 to the AVA. (Update: The AVMA has since announced a second matching donation from VCA Charities of $50,000 to the AVMF, also to benefit the AVA’s Benevolent Fund.)

I think the reason so many people want to help is that it goes down to the individual animal level. You see veterinarians and groups of people finding animals in need and figuring out how we can relieve their suffering or treat them. Additionally, you see the environmental impacts of the fires, not only for the animals but also for the people involved, and you also see the human impact of the disaster. It’s really a one-health problem, which has always been an important focus for the AVMA. Disasters such as these really illustrate how people and animals and the environment are all impacted in negative ways and how we can positively support recovery. 

Q. What are your thoughts on the future of telemedicine?

A. I see telemedicine as an incredible tool and opportunity that we can use to improve patient care and strengthen our relationship with our clients. It can help us triage patients, both during and after hours. It allows us to better connect with our clients and patients between visits to support ongoing care and provide earlier intervention when things are not going as planned. And it can support and improve communication between primary care veterinarians and specialists, while making needed specialty care more accessible to our patients. It can also facilitate information sharing and education—team to team, colleague to colleague, and veterinarian to client.

As existing technologies improve and new ones emerge, we need to look for the best ways to apply them while also collecting data that helps us assess their value for improving clinical outcomes in our patients as well as the business side of our practices. And while we’re creating excitement around what might be possible, it’s also absolutely critical that we understand and are working within the current regulatory framework when using these tools, including the VCPR (veterinarian-client-patient relationship) at both the federal and state levels. We also recognize the potential for that framework to evolve as we learn more about what works and what doesn’t for our patients and clients in this space.

Q. What about cannabis?

A. This is a great example of a situation where market demand has gotten ahead of science and regulation. Cannabidiol is widely available and is being marketed as a treatment for a variety of medical conditions in pets, but with little to no assurance of product efficacy, safety, or quality and a variety of approaches on the part of manufacturers to those concerns. So, a bit of a Wild West out there.

Based on what we know about the cannabinoid system in animals and people, cannabis-derived products do appear to have great therapeutic potential, including for treatment of epilepsy, osteoarthritis, cancer, and anxiety in pets. That said, there are currently no cannabis-derived products that are FDA (Food and Drug Administration) approved for use in animals. To gain that approval, more scientific evidence around product effectiveness—including what formulations and dosages are appropriate—and safety is needed. The AVMA has continuously advocated the need for more research, to both government and industry. Fortunately, relatively recent changes in federal law have made cannabis and specifically hemp more easily accessible to researchers. Improved access and a booming business market have significantly increased the number of laboratories conducting studies in this area, which is a good thing.

That said, the AVMA recognizes that veterinarians still have an obligation to understand and follow the law—and that the law is confusing. This means that at the same time we have been speaking with researchers, exploring the veterinary and human medical literature around cannabinoids and other cannabis-derived compounds, sharing what we know, and encouraging veterinarians to educate their clients, we have worked hard to ensure veterinarians are aware of current limitations on their ability to recommend, administer, dispense, and sell these products. And we have been advocating to those in Washington, as well as supporting our state VMAs, in seeking a clearer and more consistent regulatory approach to cannabis and its derivatives at both the federal and state levels.

Q. What do you still hope to accomplish as Board chair?

A. My goal this year is to work on planning a little further into the future. We’re already very good at the three-year planning cycle, and I’m now leading the Board to look at what things might look like in five or 10 years. How can we position the AVMA to support the profession further into the future?

Things are moving so fast, and because of that, it’s important to look at various societal trends: pet ownership and human-animal bond trends and innovation and changes in technology are a few examples. We can try to learn what the future might look like and what we can do today to continue providing value to members in five years and beyond. We’re not trying to predict the future but to prepare for the future. What might the impact of changing technology look like for monitoring animals? How will we assess the health and well-being of animals? How will we treat diseases when looking at gene therapy and unique drug therapies? We’re growing cells in different ways; what are the ethical considerations? I’ve challenged our Board to think in those terms. It’s important to plan for our three-year cycle, but can we also start looking further into the future, and I am excited to bring that to our work.