Veterinarians to AVMA: Talk to us

In VIN survey, group rates low on communication, high on leadership

Published: July 06, 2010
By Jim Downing

Many veterinarians feel the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) lives up to its mission and capably performs most of its functions as the leading professional organization in U.S. animal medicine. But many of the same veterinarians aren’t happy with how the group relates to its 79,000 members.

In a recent survey of members of the Veterinary Information Network (VIN), an online community for the profession, nearly 59 percent of respondents gave a “fair” or “poor” rating to AVMA’s efforts to understand and address issues that are important to veterinarians. Fifty-six percent also gave a “fair” or “poor” rating to the quality of the group’s communication with its members. About 90 percent of those surveyed are members of AVMA.

“In my 40+ years as a member of AVMA, the organization has never asked my opinion on anything concerning veterinary medicine or veterinarians …. Most of us feel that AVMA does NOT represent the interests of its members,” wrote one respondent in the survey’s section for anonymous comments.

The 19-item questionnaire was e-mailed to VIN’s roughly 43,000 members in January and drew 2,934 responses. It marked the introduction of VIN’s new Survey Viewer technology, which allows members to view and analyze results after completing a survey.

Aside from its low scores on the two communication questions, AVMA received generally positive ratings from the VIN community. More than 80 percent of respondents gave an “excellent” or “good” rating to the group’s annual conferences, its liability insurance for members and its reporting of scientific issues in its two periodicals, the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association and the American Journal of Veterinary Research.

A smaller majority was pleased with the group’s governmental advocacy and its health insurance products.

Finally, 58 percent answered that they “somewhat believe” or “strongly believe” AVMA is living up to its stated mission — to improve animal and human health and advance the veterinary medical profession. Fourteen percent responded that they either do not believe or strongly do not believe that AVMA is living up to its mission, while 27 percent weren’t sure.

The survey also affirmed the importance of the role AVMA aims to fill. Just over 94 percent of respondents either agreed or strongly agreed with the following statement: “An organized body or association of veterinarians is important to the long-term health of my profession and its members.”

AVMA spokeswoman Sharon Granskog said the group is working hard to improve in the areas where VIN members found fault.

“A fair or poor response on how the AVMA communicates or understands issues of importance to our members is not acceptable,” she wrote in an e-mail. “Nothing is more important to us than communicating with our members in a way that is easiest, most convenient and effective for them.”

Granskog pointed to several ways AVMA is reaching out. For instance, the group’s members can subscribe to any of 19 different e-mail lists for a range of newsletters, news alerts and notices. AVMA also is using online social networking tools. The group’s Facebook page has more than 2,500 friends, and AVMA has posted more than 1,350 tweets under its five Twitter user names.

In addition, Granskog said, members can submit their thoughts to AVMA’s governing bodies on the group’s “Critical Issues Scan” page. AVMA also recently enabled members to submit online comments on policies being considered by the group’s Animal Welfare Committee. A summary of the comments and the committee’s responses is made public after the committee concludes its discussions of a policy.

In the comment section of the VIN survey, one respondent wrote that AVMA appears to be making a serious effort in this area: “I have seen AVMA evolve and work to listen and communicate more. It can’t come all from that side. Members must speak, listen, and be willing to be involved.”

Because of the volunteer nature of the VIN survey — any member was free to respond — and the low response rate of 7 percent, it is not possible to determine how well the results represent the opinions of the VIN community as a whole. Volunteer surveys are susceptible to bias because, for instance, individuals more interested in the survey questions are more likely to respond.

Several posts in the message board discussion on the survey focused on the potential for bias in the results, particularly in light of the strong criticism of AVMA expressed by some VIN members in message board discussions and VIN News Service stories.

In the discussion, VIN administrator and survey co-designer Dr. Mark Rishniw conceded that VIN did not attempt to evaluate bias. But he countered that AVMA’s high marks on many questions suggest that most of the survey respondents didn’t have an anti-AVMA bias.

Despite the unknown validity of the results, the survey appears to have helped resolve a lingering dispute between VIN and AVMA concerning whether opinions expressed by VIN members are representative of the opinions held by a significant fraction of AVMA.

In an e-mail, Granskog wrote: “VIN's survey indicates that 90% of their 43,000 VIN members are also members of the AVMA so clearly they are representative of the AVMA.”

The issue of representativeness arose after AVMA’s insurance brokerage arm announced a partnership with pet insurance provider Pets Best in July 2008. VIN members expressed discomfort with the arrangement in a message board discussion and a survey conducted in early 2009.

According to VIN Co-founder and President Dr. Paul Pion, AVMA’s leaders were dismissive of those opinions. In private conversations, Pion said, AVMA officials told him that VIN members who responded to the survey did not reflect the opinions of the association's membership.

Asked to verify Pion’s account, AVMA’s Granskog replied in an e-mail: “If there was any statement relative to this, it would have been in the context of the handful of people who were actively involved in particular VIN discussions not representing the mainstream AVMA members — or even the mainstream VIN members — on a particular topic.”

It is unclear how many veterinarians belong to both VIN and AVMA. Neither group collects data from its members concerning their affiliation with the other organization.

AVMA has 79,432 voting members, defined as veterinarians based in the United States and its territories. VIN has 24,699 members who hold veterinary degrees and are based in the United States.

In the VIN survey, 93 percent of VIN’s U.S.-based members reported being AVMA members as well. If that proportion holds for the entire VIN community, VIN members account for 29 percent of all voting AVMA members.

VIN members likely make up a larger fraction of AVMA’s companion animal veterinarians. VIN does not have information on its members’ practice types, but the group believes that a large majority focus on companion animals. If 90 percent of VIN members practice medicine on companion animals, the community accounts for about 42 percent of AVMA's known small animal practitioners.

Based on those estimates, VIN members are somewhat underrepresented on AVMA’s Executive Board. According to a check of VIN’s directory, three of the board’s 16 members — or 19 percent — are VIN members: Drs. Theodore Cohn, Larry Dee and Thomas Meyer.

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