AVMA President Carlson touches on power of belonging

Dr. Rena Carlson
Dr. Rena Carlson

Dr. Rena Carlson, AVMA president, encouraged veterinary leaders to take steps now that will ensure the future success of veterinary colleagues and the profession overall.

In her speech before the AVMA House of Delegates' (HOD) regular annual session July 14 in Denver, Dr. Carlson called on fellow veterinarians to create conditions that will continue to remove barriers to wellbeing and facilitate personal growth, professional development, and enhance financial success.

A 1989 veterinary graduate of Washington State University, Dr. Carlson was elected last summer by the HOD as the 2023-24 AVMA president. She succeeded Dr. Lori Teller as AVMA president at the close of AVMA Convention 2023 in Denver.

Dr. Carlson has been active in organized veterinary medicine for over two decades, initially holding leadership positions within the Eastern Idaho VMA and Idaho VMA. She then served in the AVMA's HOD as the Idaho alternate delegate and delegate for 10 years and on the AVMA Board of Directors (BOD) from 2014-20, with her final year on the Board as chair.

As part of her address, Dr. Carlson encouraged her colleagues to think about the view of the profession veterinarians want the world to see and understand as well as what vision they want to manifest for themselves. The collective identity of veterinary professionals, she explained, is made up by these stories they construct, which make meaning and create purpose in their lives.

"These stories play a significant role in our psychological wellbeing," she said. "In fact, the way we interpret our experiences and the stories we tell about them are so important that they not only provide a snapshot of our current state of wellbeing, they can also predict our wellbeing over time."

Embracing a solution-focused narrative is one way to create conditions for veterinarians to more successfully manage the challenges of this profession. So is emphasizing and celebrating the positive attributes of veterinary professionals, she said.

"Adopting a strengths-based approach in our stories and in our collective mindsets not only helps us achieve a higher level of wellbeing and better navigate the challenges we face as individuals," she said. "It also draws more respect, trust, and interest from those we have taken an oath to serve. And that creates positive ripple effects for generations to come."

Another key area for success is creating a sense of belonging in our workplaces and associations. Dr. Carlson cited the Merck Animal Health Veterinary Wellbeing Studies and other research that show belonging, acceptance, and value have powerful long- and short-term implications for individual and collective wellbeing.

"It results in more confident team members, more resilient teams, a much higher level of job performance, and teams that are significantly more profitable," she said. "In turn, this can have positive impacts on our relationships with clients and improve our overall patient care.

"We can all play a role in proactively reducing the risk of belonging uncertainty, creating welcoming environments and opportunities for authentic social bonds, participating in and reviewing climate assessments, and identifying our shared purpose, values, and goals."

What ties these concepts together—addressing the collective narrative and creating a sense of belonging—is mentorship, according to Dr. Carlson. Guidance and direction from a mentor can have a profound influence at any stage of career, but particularly for new graduates and early career veterinary professionals. She noted that an AVMA survey of graduating seniors conducted last year identified mentorship as the No. 1 reason those in the Class of 2022 who accepted a job offer chose the one they did.

"A positive mentor relationship provides emotional and career support that increases wellbeing, work satisfaction, and creates a sense of belonging," she said. "All qualities that contribute to a healthier narrative about ourselves and our profession, and increase our capacity to provide exceptional care to each other, our clients, and our patients."

Dr. Carlson also touched upon how the AVMA is working to help members as they still recover from the impacts of COVID. The Association is working to bring new opportunities to the profession by promoting new technologies and advancements. And she acknowledged that while the veterinary industry is facing some workforce challenges—even current shortages in some areas—the AVMA will endeavor to ensure that there are appropriate numbers of well-prepared teams to meet workforce needs, both now and in the future.

"As we work to solve these challenges, it's important to do it the right way, through long-term planning, and with accurate data so that the public and the profession continue to be very well served," she said. "As we look ahead, let's work together to shape the future we want."

Dr. Carlson concluded her HOD remarks by asking delegates to step into their roles as mentors to young veterinarians and role models to those aspiring to be one.

"Let's enhance our workforce by fully leveraging and valuing our team members, and strengthen our teams by creating inclusive, welcoming environments where we all feel a sense of belonging. Together, we can ensure all our colleagues share in the lifelong rewards made possible by this incredible profession that we are so fortunate to share," Dr. Carlson said.

A version of this story appears in the September 2023 print issue of JAVMA