AVMA seeks third-party audit of accreditation program

Voluntary review meant to allay scrutiny, concerns raised by veterinarians

December 10, 2010 (published)
By Jennifer Fiala

To quell criticisms concerning its foray into international accreditation, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) has solicited an outside audit of its accrediting arm, the Council on Education (COE).

It is unclear whether the audit — to be conducted by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) — will pacify a growing number of veterinarians questioning the COE's mission to accredit foreign-based veterinary medical programs. According to CHEA officials, the review isn't likely to explore how accrediting foreign schools such as the National Autonomous University of Mexico's (UNAM) veterinary program might impact the U.S. profession.

The audit will examine whether the volunteer-based COE has adequate resources to spread the AVMA's brand of accreditation internationally, and determine whether it meets CHEA's standards, spokesman Timothy Willard explains. CHEA is a private, non-profit group that advocates for self-regulation of academic quality through accreditation. CHEA's funding comes from the 3,000 degree-granting colleges and universities that it counts as members. It also assures the quality and rigor of 60 accrediting organizations, the COE among them.

Last month, AVMA Executive Board members voted to have CHEA audit COE processes, starting in early 2011. If CHEA consents to performing what it calls a "recognition review" — the group's Board of Directors must first sign off on it — the AVMA promises to make its findings public. A report from CHEA could be issued by May 2012, AVMA staff says.

On Dec. 2, AVMA Chief Executive Officer Dr. Ron DeHaven sent an e-mail to association leaders that speaks to controversy surrounding the COE's dealings in international accreditation as well as concerns raised during last summer’s House of Delegates session. At that meeting in Atlanta, the House — the AVMA’s principle policy-making body — debated and defeated a resolution brought by Texas Veterinary Medical Association (TVMA) that called for a self-study of the effect that extending U.S. accreditation to foreign schools might have on the profession in America. 

Though the resolution failed, the meeting represented the first time the AVMA’s efforts to tread in international waters were challenged in such an open and public forum by a state veterinary medical association.

Addressing the TVMA's call for an audit, DeHaven’s e-mail reads, in part: “The AVMA Executive Board believes that this review … will satisfy that request in that CHEA is independent, a third party and internationally recognized in the arena of professional accreditation.”

CHEA's assessment of accreditors differs from that of the U.S. Department of Education (USDE), which recognizes the COE as a programmatic accreditor with authority to evaluate veterinary medical education in America. CHEA assesses accrediting agencies based on three purposes: to advance academic quality, to demonstrate accountability and to encourage, where appropriate, scrutiny, changes and improvement.

What CHEA is not poised to consider are the effects of the COE's foreign-school accreditation on the American veterinary workforce. Criticism of this aspect of COE's work has been mounting within the veterinary community during the course of this year.

The growing criticism is stirred at least in part by concerns about the potential impact of competition from veterinarians trained in Mexico at a COE-accredited program. While no such program yet exists, UNAM has been interested in attaining COE accreditation for at least a decade.

Critics question a need to accredit internationally when two qualifying programs already exist to vet the skills and education of foreign-trained veterinarians looking to work in America. Graduates of COE-accredited programs can bypass these examinations and sit for the same national and state boards posed to graduates educated in the United States.

Proponents of the COE’s international efforts favor spreading U.S. accreditation standards worldwide to cement the COE’s place as the “premier” global authority. They contend that such efforts will raise the bar for veterinary education in other countries and warn that if the AVMA fails to take an international lead, countries such as China will assume the responsibility.

To that, critics of the COE’s international efforts counter that work tied to assessing the accreditation of international programs is onerous, exposing the volunteer council to improper guidance by AVMA officials and other external pressures. Some argue that the COE should focus solely on what the USDE charges it to do — ensure the quality of veterinary education in America.

To date, the COE accredits nine foreign veterinary schools worldwide, most receiving the council’s nod during the past decade. The COE's international work, confined to the United Kingdom, Europe, New Zealand and Australia, had been largely overlooked by the AVMA’s general membership until early this year, when a controversial bid for accreditation came from Mexico City's UNAM.

In February, the COE narrowly rejected UNAM’s petition for U.S. accreditation, but not before news of its consideration generated heated debate on forums hosted by the Veterinary Information Network (VIN), an online community for the profession.

Articles published by the VIN News Service, the network’s media service, that reported on UNAM’s efforts to gain U.S. accreditation prompted veterinarians to come out in droves. Concerns revolved around speculation that the engine behind the school’s accreditation quest is U.S.-based Banfield, The Pet Hospital, which has looked to Mexico to one day provide the manpower needed to supply its ever-growing number of clinics in Canada and the United States.
Others expressed doubts about the ability of UNAM to train practitioners with skills akin to those of U.S. veterinarians, citing cultural differences such as Mexico's focus on animal husbandry, which is markedly different from the pet-based medicine that dominates the profession in America.

Some on VIN spoke of the Mexican program’s merits and expressed support for the COE taking on international accreditation. But other VIN members expressed concerns that the COE’s accreditation of UNAM could send many of the program's 350-plus annual veterinary graduates migrating north, taking jobs from American veterinarians who are saddled by low starting salaries and near-crippling educational debt. U.S.-trained DVMs, many working to pay off $130,000 or more in student loans, would have to compete with veterinarians from UNAM who earned a virtually free education.

Such a dire scenario has practitioners questioning whether the AVMA — the nation's largest trade association for veterinarians with 80,000 members — truly represents them. Dr. Debbie Sprong, a VIN member and associate editor in diagnostic imaging for the network, expressed that concern in a message board discussion. She noted that AVMA member dues, in part, support the COE. That leaves her questioning why, when mulling the accreditation of foreign programs, the COE does not include the potential impact to AVMA members in its decision-making processes.

She writes, rhetorically: "Why should the AVMA members be sponsoring accreditation of foreign schools if they don't want to do so? There (already) is a process for foreign graduates to obtain a license to practice in the U.S."



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