Decision to alter Veterinarian's Oath strikes discord

Faction of AVMA members report feeling disenfranchised

January 6, 2011 (published)
By Stephen W. Spero

As the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) House of Delegates gathers in Chicago for an annual meeting this weekend, some veterinarians are expressing concern that members' voices are not being heard.

Decisions that affect the entire profession are seemingly made in a vacuum, critics contend. Case in point: The AVMA Executive Board's recent amendment of the Veterinarian's Oath.  

Comprised of 15 voting officials, the Executive Board has the power to drive policy for the organization's 80,000 members. In November, board members approved adding four words to the oath to emphasize a commitment to animal welfare.

Critics of the decision to tinker with the oath aren't vexed about language specifics; many view the alterations to be positive and minor. The rub revolves around a desire to weigh in on major changes. With thousands of new graduates committing to that sworn statement each year, AVMA members want a seat at the table, and this latest move by the Executive Board has left some feeling disenfranchised.  

Referring to the association's leadership, Dr. Warren Kaplan, a longtime AVMA member practicing on Long Island, said: “They just go ahead and do something. They rarely ask the membership."

Kaplan and other veterinarians aired their discontent on the Veterinary Information Network (VIN), an online community for the profession. Additionally, some House delegates have expressed concern about not being consulted as the association's primary policy-making body.

Considering the politically charged nature of the flap, House delegates contacted by the VIN News Service would not speak on the record.

To the critics, Dr. John de Jong, an AVMA Executive Board member and a former House delegate representing Massachusetts, responds that the concerns are not justified.

“The AVMA has a lot of entities, councils and task forces. We have a lot of representation,” he said.

Still, some believe that altering the symbolic foundation of what it means to be a veterinarian deserves a broader review. This is the third time the Veterinarian's Oath has been amended since the AVMA adopted it in 1954. The last time a revision took place was in 1999.

In a Dec. 6 e-mail to the VIN News Service, the AVMA used bold type to denote the four words added to the oath:

Being admitted to the profession of veterinary medicine, I solemnly swear to use my scientific knowledge and skills for the benefit of society through the protection of animal health and welfare the prevention and relief of animal suffering, the conservation of animal resources, the promotion of public health, and the advancement of medical knowledge.

I will practice my profession conscientiously, with dignity, and in keeping with the principles of veterinary medical ethics.

I accept as a lifelong obligation the continual improvement of my professional knowledge and competence.

The changes, according to AVMA officials, stemmed from a recommendation by the group's Animal Welfare Committee to better identify animal welfare as a priority in veterinary medicine. But other AVMA councils and committees advised against making the changes because there is no universally accepted definition of animal welfare. The AVMA Council on Veterinary Service petitioned the Executive Board to refrain from altering the oath.

De Jong said the back-and-forth among committees shows there was a healthy debate. “I don’t think it came that fast. It was vetted by various entities,” he said.

But without taking the proposed changes to the general membership, the larger point remains, said Dr. Frederick Baum, of the Arlington Animal Hospital in Vermont and president of the Vermont Veterinary Medical Association.

“The vet oath is a fine example of the AVMA reaching out less to the membership when it should be reaching out more to the membership,” Baum said in an interview with the VIN News Service.

Average veterinarians are worried about student debt and failing practices, and the AVMA is not hearing those concerns, he said. Baum and Kaplan said they would favor the use of electronic surveys to give AVMA members a voice on issues that matter to them.

Veterinarians can best air their views, de Jong said, by volunteering for one of the AVMA's councils and committees or by running for office. “We represent a lot of groups … We welcome their interest."

As for a disconnect between the AVMA's House of Delegates and Executive Board, de Jong reports that there isn't any. Cumulatively, the 15 voting members of the Executive Board have 150 years of experience serving in the House of Delegates, he said.

“We are all out for the best for the AVMA,” he said.

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