Board chair addresses veterinary issues

Dr. Karen Bradley talks about wellness, veterinary technician utilization, and more
Dr. Bradley
Dr. Karen Bradley

Veterinary professionals have shown remarkable resiliency over the past two years as COVID caused disruptions to daily life, and it’s no secret that the veterinary community continues to face unique challenges. Dr. Karen Bradley, chair of the AVMA Board of Directors, talked with AVMA News about the Association’s efforts to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion; well-being in the profession; and the importance of veterinary technicians. The small animal practice owner also discussed the importance of data to guide business decisions and returning to in-person attendance for the AVMA Convention in Philadelphia this summer.

The responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Q. What are your priorities as chair of the board over the next few months?

A. My biggest priorities are progress on diversity, equity, and inclusion activities and what we as an association are doing in the area of increasing technician utilization. Both of these require increased engagement with the public about how great the veterinary profession is so we can increase the number of people who know what we do and want to be a part of it.

Q. What are your thoughts on being back in person for this year’s convention in Philadelphia?

A. Having the last two years as a virtual meeting was necessary, but the camaraderie, peer-to-peer support, and connections are just not the same as when we are together in person. I am excited that we will be able to be back in person.

Q. What’s the status of the AVMA’s diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts, and what might members expect the results of those efforts will be?

A. The AVMA is actively recruiting for a director for diversity, equity, and inclusion, which will help us in our efforts to embed DEI in everything we do. Another important advancement is that the Board passed a policy on DEI in the selection of volunteer positions. This is an important step in actively seeking more diverse representation in many categories for our volunteer entities.

Our joint AVMA–American Association of Veterinary Medical Colleges DEI commission has also proposed a number of initiatives, many of which will kick off in 2022, so stay tuned for those! They have organized these initiatives into life or career stages: primary or secondary school, undergraduate and pre-professional, veterinary students, early career, and mid- to advanced career. Each of these segments has different needs, and each will require different outreach and support to be successful.

At AVMA Convention 2022, we will kick off a new recurring event, Vet for a Day, held at the W.B. Saul High School for Agricultural Sciences. We are thrilled to have Drs. Vernard Hodges and Terrence Ferguson, two Black veterinarians who star in the TV show “Critter Fixers,” lead this event by working with diverse groups of students to bring the veterinary profession to them and inspire more of these students to consider becoming a veterinarian.

Regarding veterinary professionals feeling overworked and burned out, “The best action that an association like AVMA can do for its members who are experiencing this is to provide them as much support and as many resources as possible while we work to understand the underlying causes of the challenges and work collaboratively as a profession to solve them.”

Dr. Karen Bradley, chair, AVMA Board of Directors

Q. The Working Group on Veterinary Technician Utilization is expected to release its findings this spring. How do you rely on your veterinary technicians in your practice, and why is it important to make use of these vital members of the veterinary team?

A. Veterinary technicians and veterinary nurses have always been my heroes. The reason I can do a cystocentesis or adequately place an IV catheter or get a blood sample from a ferret is because a skilled technician taught me. That said, I rarely do these because my technicians are trained and trusted to do them. I see the role of the veterinarian to examine, diagnose, and formulate a treatment plan, while the role of the technician or nurse is to obtain the necessary lab samples or radiographs, administer the treatments and care, and communicate with clients about the patient and the ongoing care plan. A healthy veterinary team has a symbiotic relationship between doctors and technicians so both feel supported and allowed to perform the skills they have honed.

Q. Many members of the veterinary workforce feel overworked and burned out. Realistically, what can a professional association like the AVMA do to help?

A. The best action that an association like AVMA can do for its members who are experiencing this is to provide them as much support and as many resources as possible while we work to understand the underlying causes of the challenges and work collaboratively as a profession to solve them. AVMA is a place our members can turn to for wellness resources, financial management tools, career opportunities, and more. In terms of our current workforce challenges, there really is no simple solution to such a multifactorial issue, one that is not even unique to veterinary medicine; so many workplaces and businesses have suffered employee loss throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. In our case, the workforce issues have been simmering for some time and, much like supply chain issues, have been exacerbated by the pandemic. The AVMA is researching the cause of these issues so we can help develop effective solutions.

Q. What was your reaction to the latest Merck Animal Health study of veterinary well-being that found serious psychological stress among veterinarians had increased to 9.7% in 2021, compared with 6.4% in 2019?

A. Unfortunately, I am not completely surprised by this finding as the last two years have had so much stress and uncertainty due to the COVID-19 pandemic. We already have many workplaces that are busy and at capacity to provide care. Layer on top of that trying to keep everyone healthy and safe, and we feel overtaxed and overburdened. This highlights how vital our well-being resources and initiatives are now and into the future.

Q. Hearing all this negative news, how does it make you feel about the state of your profession?

A. My biggest disappointment is that such a high proportion of veterinarians regret choosing veterinary medicine as their career. I love being a veterinarian and love that when people find out I am a veterinarian, they almost universally say, “I always wanted to be a veterinarian!” We are an amazing profession, and we will face our challenges together. We are resilient, and our profession makes the world a better place for animal and human health.

Q.  The AVMA’s updated pet demographic report is coming out in May. Figures show an increase in pet ownership, but it’s not as dramatic as some have reported from the pandemic. Why is it important to have this kind of data?

A. It is so easy to make assumptions based on the information in front of us, which is often anecdotal and typically limited in scope. Recently at my clinic, I felt like there were a ton of no-shows for appointments, to the point I was considering taking action, like having new clients pay a deposit at the time of booking their appointment. However, when we ran a report from our practice management software, the number of no-shows had not increased significantly over the previous one to two years. Having data like the pet demographic study can help us make more accurate decisions based on who has pets, where, how many, and their owners’ preferences for their care.

A version of this article appears in the May 2022 print issue of JAVMA.