Osburn resigns from Banfield board of directors

UC Davis dean cites potential conflict of interest as impetus for decision

Published: February 13, 2010
By Jennifer Fiala

Dr. Bennie Osburn, dean of the University of California, Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, resigned from the Medical Management International, Inc., (MMI) Board of Directors last week in a move lauded by some of his colleagues.

The position, Osburn says, conflicted with his new role as chair of the North American Veterinary Medical Education Consortium, a group charged with taking an in-depth look at veterinary education models as well as the implications of accreditation and licensing on education. The objective: to tackle major problems tied to veterinary medical education by making the academic system more efficient and effective. On the table are issues like rising educational debt, stressors on educational programs and even limited licensure — topics that could alter the profession's future.

“This important committee activity may create a conflict of interest with Medical Management International (MMI) and its professional recruitment goals that may involve graduates of foreign schools of veterinary medicine,” Osburn says in a short statement provided to the VIN News Service. The consortium met last week in Las Vegas.

While some veterinarians might not be familiar with MMI, most are aware of Banfield, the Pet Hospital, which is one and the same. Banfield, like pet food brands Pedigree and Royal Canin, is owned by candy bar giant Mars, Inc. Osburn accepted the appointment to Banfield’s Board of Directors in May 2009. Soon after, criticisms emerged from veterinarians who did not believe that the head of a California’s state-supported veterinary college should be intimately connected to a company that established the largest privately held chain of veterinary medical practices in the United States.

With Banfied in the market for DVM manpower to fuel its practices and Osburn in charge of an institution churning out new graduates, some considered it unethical for the dean to be involved with the strategic and financial goals of the private corporation.

At the time, Osburn defended his decision by stating that he was acting as a neutral stakeholder, advising Banfield about what’s best for veterinary medicine.

That could be true, considering Banfield has been widely criticized for its corporate medicine protocols and resented for encroaching on the traditional model of veterinary practice ownership — small businesses, says Dr. Fred Baum, a practitioner in Arlington, Vt., and a Veterinary Information Network (VIN) member.

“Not everything is black and white. In the age of Enron and Bernie Madoff, it’s nice to know that we have true leaders who will do the right thing,” says Baum, speaking of Osburn's resignation.

VIN Member and practitioner Dr. Carl Darby agrees that’s Osburn’s decision to leave Banfield's board is valid, especially now that the dean heads the consortium. 

“I certainly get that he might want to help influence Banfield in a positive way, but this is different,” Darby says. “If you’re sitting on the board of a major veterinary corporation that’s already made several attempts to allow Mexican veterinarians to get into California, you can’t be on a committee that could influence the outcome of accreditation.”

What Darby speaks to is a belief that Banfield stands to benefit from the accreditation of Mexico City’s National Autonomous University of Mexico (UnAM). In 2004, the corporation sank millions of dollars into the development of a 15,000-square-foot veterinary teaching hospital tied to the institution, where students complete clinical rotations.

Osburn’s conflict, noted in his statement to the VIN News Service, is rooted in Banfield’s stake in the accreditation of foreign veterinary graduates. Banfield officials could not immediately be reached for comment, but some veterinarians contend that the company’s ultimate goal is to turn UnAM, which graduates 250 to 300 students a year, into a feeder program for an ever-growing number of Banfield practices in the United States.

The timing of Osburn’s decision to cut ties with Banfield also is noteworthy. Next month, the American Veterinary Medical Association’s accreditation arm, the Council on Education (CoE), is scheduled to deliberate on whether UnAM meets its accreditation standards. A green light from the council would mean that barring U.S. immigration requirements, UnAM graduates could skip the educational equivalency exams that represent cost and time burdens for Mexican veterinarians seeking work in the United States.

UnAM students would sit for the same national and state board examinations given to graduates of U.S. veterinary medical programs.

The effect that a potential influx of Mexican veterinarians emigrating to the United States might have on American practitioners and veterinary medicine, as a whole, is up for debate. For now, Darby is glad that Osburn is squashing any perception that his agenda might extend beyond advocating for veterinary education to include Banfield.

“We want to know that’s there’s been no deliberate attempt to sway the consortium. It would put a question mark over the validity of the entire process," he says.

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