Q&A: Faeh Butler emphasizes importance of effective communication, listening

Former AVMA vice president answers why she should be the next AVMA president-elect

This July in Denver, the AVMA House of Delegates (HOD) will elect the 2023-24 AVMA president-elect from among three candidates: Dr. Sandra Faeh Butler, 2020-22 AVMA vice president; Dr. Arnold L. Goldman, 2017-23 AVMA treasurer; and Dr. Robert Murtaugh, a former chair of the AVMA American Board of Veterinary Specialties.

In the following interview, Dr. Faeh Butler explains why she's running and what makes her the best person for the office. The following responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Dr. Sandra Faeh ButlerDr. Sandra Faeh Butler

Q: If elected, how do you envision your time as AVMA president?

A: As AVMA president, I envision spending time working to accomplish a better communication strategy. The direction of the AVMA is not set by one individual; it is set by its 100,000-plus members. The only way to truly understand the members' needs is to listen, and we need effective communication to achieve this.

Members need to know all that AVMA has to offer and what their leaders are doing, and most do not. We are an amazing organization with many resources to help veterinarians, both personally and professionally. The AVMA Board of Directors, the House of Delegates, and volunteers work diligently, year-round. Being unaware, members continually ask for services that we already provide, and that is unacceptable.

Communication is a two-way street, and it doesn't just stop with our members. Veterinarians are very important to the public, human health, and the safety of our food supply. We touch millions of people every day. This became evident during COVID, when veterinarians stepped up and aided in research and administered vaccines. It is essential that the public knows the value of veterinarians and everything we do.

To achieve our goals as a successful organization, an effective communication strategy must be in place. Communication styles evolve constantly, and we need to respond appropriately. Only with an efficient process can we succeed.

Q: What makes you the best candidate for the position?

A: I bring unique strengths and experiences to the table. My guiding principles have always been to communicate, listen, and appreciate differing opinions. My diverse background has helped me develop these skills.

Early in my career, research was my focus. I studied environmental toxicology, publishing many papers and even a chapter in a textbook. After graduation, I became an associate at a small animal clinic, and in 1998, I acquired a partnership in a hospital. I enthusiastically embraced small animal medicine and practice ownership by acquiring three more partnerships. In 2021, I was thrilled to create a mentorship program, guiding new graduates as they enter the profession. These included small and mixed animal hospitals. In April this year, I was honored to become National Veterinary Associates' (NVA) first chief veterinary officer.

I have also been privileged to work with many students and new graduates as AVMA vice president. It is essential that your leaders understand the needs of veterinary students and new graduates, as they are the future of our profession.

If elected, I will use my experiences and never stop listening and never stop learning. We are a small profession but very diverse. It is important to listen and learn from not only the experts of the field, but also each and every member.

Q: What do you see as the most immediate challenges facing the veterinary profession, and how can the AVMA address them?

A: Our profession faces multiple challenges that are inextricably intertwined. There is no simple answer and solutions are multifactorial. Whether they are new graduates or in private practice, industry, or regulatory veterinary medicine, the immediate need is different for everyone. Each challenge is an opportunity to grow and succeed.

We all know that mental health and work-life balance are at the forefront of veterinarians' minds. Most likely, there isn't one of us who has not been affected by suicide. Wellbeing is directly related to workforce issues. Regardless of the role in veterinary medicine—veterinarian, veterinary technician, or customer service representative (CSR)—burnout is causing an exodus in our field. Student debt also directly affects mental health and workforce.

In our current environment, workplace issues are a huge concern. Clinics are not able to hire team members at every level: doctors, veterinary technicians, CSRs, or kennel attendants. Clinics everywhere are having to limit their services, and therefore limit the care given to their patients because of these issues. We must look at the entire veterinary team, as each team member is essential to our success. Retention of team members is another problem, particularly veterinary technicians. Many only stay in the profession a few years. We must fight for all of these important individuals. To increase job satisfaction and retention, we must leverage their skills, create a sense of value and belonging, and improve work-life balance.

These problems are complex, and we must look at the many causes. It is essential to explore and understand the outcomes from each action we take, and act in a timely manner to ensure that our hospital teams can perform at a maximum level. All opportunities must be investigated to move our profession forward.

Q: What's your perspective on wellbeing for the profession and how do you model wellbeing as a veterinary professional?

A: Wellbeing affects every aspect of our lives, and it is imperative to living a healthy and happy life. That includes financial concerns, such as high student debt and not being able to sell your practice, along with workforce concerns, including staff shortages, which often leads to working more hours. Not to mention, the current culture has led to more complaints and frustrations from clients and employees. All of these things affect our wellbeing.

The AVMA has many amazing resources to help with these issues. In order to utilize them, people need to be familiar with these tools before they are needed. We need to effectively communicate the available tools so that our members can succeed. This is one of the main reasons I address wellness with my mentees on a monthly basis. I am giving them the tools to succeed and hopefully prevent burnout, a crisis in our profession.

I model wellbeing by encouraging my co-workers and colleagues to take care of themselves. Veterinary medicine is a passion for many of us, but it cannot be our only identity. We must seek things that will bring us joy to recharge our batteries outside the profession. In this virtual world, we must encourage others to network and talk about their experiences and concerns. Being overwhelmed or struggling with mental health concerns is nothing to be ashamed about.

Q: Talk about the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in the profession and examples of how you have fostered DEI in your leadership career.

A: Diversity, equity, and inclusion are essential to the success of our profession, and we have much to accomplish. Our profession needs to remove barriers of inclusion to create a culture of belonging. We have a responsibility and opportunity to grow and become much more diverse. Loving animals and caring for people is a universal language. We must start young, go out into all communities—especially underserved communities without access to veterinary care—to talk to students about our profession, as veterinarians, as technicians, and as CSRs.

DEI encompasses our entire profession. We must eliminate the barriers in place that restrict certain individuals from joining us. For example, the high cost of education and frequently requested volunteer hours limits applicants from lower financial backgrounds.

Throughout my veterinary career, I have embraced diversity of all kinds and see the value it brings to a practice and organization. I am proud to have had an extremely diverse staff, with over 100 individuals from many different backgrounds, race, sexual orientation, and religion, represented at every level of the team.

As a member of Journey for Teams, graduate of Purdue University's Certificate Program for Diversity and Inclusion in Veterinary Medicine, and AVMA's Brave Space Certificate Program, I will continue to learn and grow to make this profession inclusive. Together, as people from many backgrounds and experiences, we will be stronger. Each different perspective is valuable and strengthens our organization, our practices, and our lives.

A version of this article appears in the June 2023 print issue of JAVMA.