Kate Boatright, VMD, a 2013 graduate of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, is a small animal general practitioner in western Pennsylvania. As a freelance writer and speaker, Dr. Boatright enjoys educating students and colleagues about communication, team building, wellness and recent graduates’ unique challenges. She is active in organized veterinary medicine at the local, state and national levels.Read Articles Written by Kate Boatright
One of the things I missed most after I graduated from Penn Vet in 2013 was the support and camaraderie of peers who had gone through the same rigorous academic training as me. As an early-career veterinarian, I faced an immense student debt load, a steep learning curve in daily practice, and the challenge of learning to integrate my personal and professional lives. I knew I wasn’t alone, but finding people who truly understood my struggles was difficult in the small town where I worked. Not until I got involved with my local and state veterinary medical associations about a year after graduation did I discover the community I was missing.
In a profession plagued by poor mental health and suicide, a professional support network is essential. No matter how empathetic family, friends and partners are, the mental strains and emotional burdens of veterinary professionals are best understood by those having the first-hand experience. Building a community by attending local and national veterinary events and conferences can help us navigate difficult times in practice. Networking allows us to foster collaboration, exchange ideas, find support in our everyday experiences and identify where change is needed. These collaborations strengthen our profession.
Kathy Koar, MSEd, CVT, the veterinary nursing program director at Harcum College in Pennsylvania, tells students about the importance of connecting with others through membership in state and national associations.
“My association with NAVTA [National Association of Veterinary Technicians in America] has given me the opportunity to expand my knowledge base and skills in a variety of areas,” Koar said. “It has also provided me with the opportunity to make valuable connections and introductions for so many of my alumni, and it has allowed me to provide opportunities for my students that they would not otherwise have.
“The need to connect is enormous,” she said, “and the result of collaboration is always a better product in the end.”
As Koar has seen, professional networks can help open doors to new career paths or job opportunities. The connections can be life-changing for young professionals just learning the breadth of what they can do with their degree.
Here are four additional benefits of becoming a member of a professional organization.
1. Personal Development
During veterinary school, I held leadership positions in clubs and the national Veterinary Business Management Association. After graduation, I yearned to find that level of engagement. I was introduced to Pennsylvania Veterinary Medical Association staff members during my time at the University of Pennsylvania, and I was eager to get involved.
Leadership skills are essential to the success of veterinarians, but they must be developed and nurtured. Many state VMAs offer Power of Ten (P10) leadership training programs for young professionals. I was admitted to the Pennsylvania VMA’s first P10 class in 2015. The tools and personal development I gained were invaluable to me, a young veterinarian navigating job transitions and career shifts.
My colleagues in the P10 class are now leaders in the Pennsylvania VMA, bringing a new generation to the table. The VMA’s most recent class is exclusively certified veterinary technicians.
Other areas of development essential for success include personal wellness and communication skills. The American Veterinary Medical Association offers a robust well-being center that includes personal wellness assessments, QPR (question, persuade and refer) suicide-prevention training and a workplace well-being certificate.
2. Professional Development
The continuing education offered by veterinary organizations is high quality and gives practitioners access to leading experts. In addition, some groups provide tailored CE specific to an animal species. The American Association of Feline Practitioners, for example, provides an “ever-evolving, never stagnant, supportive network of up-to-date information, continuing education and practice tools that facilitate the highest standard of feline practice and welfare,” said President Kelly St. Denis, MSc, DVM, DABVP (Feline).
One of the least recognized but most vital roles of organized veterinary medicine is representing the profession to the public and advocating for it in state and national legislative bodies. Until I became a Pennsylvania VMA district trustee, I didn’t fully understand the amount of advocacy done by veterinary organization staff members and volunteers.
“In our very busy workdays, it is easy to forget that there are outside groups trying to interfere with our ability to practice or chip away at our scope of practice and our relevancy,” said the AVMA’s 2021-22 president-elect, Lori Teller, DVM, DABVP (Canine/Feline).
For example, imagine being required to provide a written prescription for every medication you plan to dispense for every patient at every appointment and at the same time comply with Federal Trade Commission regulations. That scenario would become a reality if Congress approved the Fairness to Pet Owners Act. First introduced nearly a decade ago and repeatedly reintroduced, the bill never passed, thanks in large part to aggressive advocacy by AVMA staff and volunteers.
The AVMA collaborates with state VMAs and allied and stakeholder groups such as the AAFP, the American Association of Bovine Practitioners and the American Association of Equine Practitioners to “make sure we are in agreement about what legislation or regulations may be good or not good for the profession,” Dr. Teller said. Collaboration allows veterinary organizations to harness their strength in numbers and speak as one voice, she added.
Social, economic and well-being issues also are addressed. One of the best examples is the push for improved diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). The Multicultural Veterinary Medical Association began tackling the issue in 2020 and was joined by nine affinity organizations.
The Multicultural VMA developed and distributed a petition outlining the profession’s lack of diversity. A detailed action plan was presented to AVMA leaders, and the AVMA board of directors and House of Delegates approved hiring a DEI consultant and giving DEI its own strategy. In December 2020, the AVMA and the American Association of Veterinary Medical Colleges created a Commission for a Diverse, Equitable and Inclusive Veterinary Profession, which will lead both organizations’ DEI initiatives.
Another example involves NAVTA, which works closely with its members on the state level to advance the Veterinary Nurse Initiative, a campaign designed to raise awareness of the role of veterinary nurses in patient care, define their scope of practice, and unite the profession under unified credential and training requirements.
4. Professional Advancement
Keeping up with evolving technology, therapies and diagnostics can be overwhelming for veterinary professionals in practice. But, that’s where professional organizations can help, said St. Denis, the AAFP president.
“Every practitioner, no matter what species they are most interested in, needs an organization … that can be active in supporting them, in gathering the most up-to-date science and medicine for them, and providing the information in relatable, bite-size, easy-to-access pieces that elevate that practitioner’s standards of care,” she said.
Veterinary groups also provide guidance on scientific, ethical and animal welfare issues. Maine practice owner Amanda Bisol, VMD, who serves on the AVMA House Advisory Committee, said the national organization’s committees and councils recruit volunteers and experts from across the country “to study and create the best policies to represent our entire profession.”
“Organizing and managing these groups, and then publishing their work and creating guidance documents, is the definition of organized veterinary medicine,” Dr. Bisol said.
Most recently, the AVMA released telehealth guidelines in conjunction with the American Animal Hospital Association. Such documents allow busy practitioners to stay on the cutting edge of medicine and business practices, saving them from seeking and compiling the information themselves.
In talking with colleagues and reading online commentary, I realized that the value of organized veterinary medicine is often not fully understood. The tangible benefits — liability insurance, continuing education, product discounts and practice guidelines, for instance — are easy to see. The intangible benefits, such as protecting the profession through active and ongoing advocacy and providing personal and professional development opportunities, are less recognized.
Young veterinary professionals should join a local, state or national organization “because they are the future and the future is theirs to create,” said Koar, the Harcum College veterinary nursing program director.
“Don’t complain about not being valued, not being paid enough, not being provided with the opportunities you want and have worked so hard to attain,” she said. “Go out there and show them who you are, what you can do and why you are indispensable. Not sure how to start doing this? Join your association.”
GETTING AN EARLY START
Many professional groups offer student memberships. For example, by joining the Student Veterinary Medical Association, which has campus chapters nationwide and abroad, members can explore organized veterinary medicine through the Veterinary Business Management Association.
The VBMA began in 2000 as a student club at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine. Founded in 2004, the national organization today has more than 5,500 student members representing every accredited veterinary school. The VBMA’s certificate program provides extracurricular education on topics such as business, wellness, communication and career development.
From its inception, the national VBMA has been a student-run organization, currently overseen by a six-member board. An annual meeting and officer training typically draw over 200 student attendees. To learn more, visit vbma.biz.