Officials within the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) will decide in the coming months whether veterinarians can become board-certified in a newly proposed specialty: animal welfare.
This summer, the AVMA Board of Governors will consider an appeal to save the anticipated American College of Animal Welfare (ACAW), which was refused provisional recognition last September by the AVMA Council on Education (COE).
(The Board of Governors is comprised of the Executive Board chair, AVMA president and president-elect.)
Meanwhile, the approval process is drawing critics, some of whom are chiding the AVMA for a lack of transparency in the system established to scrutinize newly proposed specialties seeking recognition from the American Board of Veterinary Specialties (ABVS).
Others question why the COE — an AVMA body primarily charged with accrediting schools — has a stake in the process at all. Though the COE's involvement is standard when it comes to vetting proposed specialty colleges, its input on ACAW has drawn ire given that the American Board of Veterinary Specialties (ABVS) voted last year in favor of the welfare college.
The ABVS, comprised of board-certified veterinarians, is an umbrella organization within the AVMA that recognizes veterinary specialties in the United States. More than 9,800 veterinarians have been awarded diplomate status in one or more of 21 specialty organizations recognized by the ABVS by completing post-graduate training, education and examination requirements.
Despite the ABVS’s endorsement, COE members voted to reject the proposed welfare college’s bid. The AVMA wouldn't say whether the COE has ever made a decision contrary to the ABVS's recommendation in the past.
Details of the rejection were not publicized, but insiders say COE members questioned whether the nation’s 28 veterinary medical programs had the facilities and programs to support advanced training in animal welfare. Another objection rested with the fact that some experts in animal welfare are non-veterinarians who would be precluded from earning board certification.
Doubts also reportedly were raised as to whether a welfare specialty would fulfill a need or improve veterinary medical services to the public.
To some ACAW supporters, the COE’s verdict was flawed and wrought with politics. The decision-making process isn't open for public examination. AVMA officials keep debate regarding COE decisions confidential for fear that publishing negative opinions might damage an organization’s reputation — in this case, ACAW's.
That's failed to placate AVMA members who want less ambiguity tied to the organization. While several veterinarians contacted by the VIN News Service argued against the COE's closed-door methods and the role it plays enacting specialty colleges, few were willing to speak openly about it.
At least one veterinarian in academia questions whether the COE or Board of Governors are qualified to rule on specialty boards, given that their members are not necessarily board-certified specialists. The ABVS's 21 members, by contrast, are all board-certified specialists who've sat on both sides of the credentialing process.
The decision regarding ACAW ultimately "is in the hands of people who have no experience with ABVS or the board-certification process," he said, speaking anonymously to avoid any chance of retribution. "The COE (eventually) is coming to accredit my college," he noted.
Another board-certified specialist who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid the controversy is troubled by politics tied to the process. “I am more concerned about the lack of transparency and the secrecy than the appeal at this point," he said.
In response to questions concerning ACAW from the VIN News Service, AVMA staff declined to comment and redirected the query to Dr. Bonnie Beaver, a former AVMA president and academician from Texas A&M University who leads the ACAW Organizing Committee.
Beaver, in turn, sent out an email to members of ACAW's organizing committee, asking that they not answer media inquiries.
She then provided this statement:
“The appeal process is AVMA’s process and ACAW has nothing to do with it except follow their requirements. We are not being secretive, we are following the AVMA process and looking forward to a favorable outcome. Other than that we have no comment because it is a work in progress."
Dr. Bill Folger, a board-certified feline specialist in Houston who has sat on welfare committees of the AVMA and American Association of Feline Practitioners, said he wants to know what's going on with the prospective welfare college and is exasperated by the “smokescreen.”
“I don’t think there’s anything remotely transparent about this process,” he said, referring to the COE's role. “It’s just a bunch of rhetoric. These people have a long-standing sense of their own self-importance, and they don’t feel the need to disclose anything to the membership."
Folger added: "I understand that the COE is a quasi-government institution backed by the Department of Education, but I don't see how the Department of Education needs them to sign off on something that has to do with the American Board of Veterinary Specialties."
The AVMA did not provide insight into the reasons behind the COE's involvement in ABVS affairs, when questioned by the VIN News Service.
This isn't the first time AVMA members have expressed cynicism in connection with ACAW's path toward recognition.
Beaver and other ACAW Organizing Committee leaders came under fire in 2010 when they proposed that future candidates of the welfare college be required to sign the AVMA Welfare Principles in order to earn diplomate status.
Critics objected to the notion that signing such a pledge would sit well with every candidate. After all, some might not agree with the AVMA's eight welfare principles for a variety of reasons. Others questioned the validity of the requirement because specialty college conditions are designed to assess training, education and competency — not serve as a political litmus test used to scrutinize candidates.
After months of mounting pressure, the ACAW Organizing Committee repealed its sign-off requirement. Instead, the AVMA Welfare Principles were adopted as guidance for the proposed specialty college. The change reflected a compromise between those who believed the welfare principles should act as measurement of welfare aptitude and those who considered being forced to agree with such a document to be exclusionary and stifling.
Folger, the feline practitioner from Houston, applauded the change. He now predicts that if the AVMA fails to establish a welfare specialty college, the group will lose its authority as a leader on animal welfare to activists.
"If the AVMA has any hope of regaining ground and establishing themselves as an authority in this field, they have to create this college," he said. "Otherwise, the AVMA will remain forever behind-the-curve on animal welfare issues."
Veterinary colleagues are invited to weigh in
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VIN News Service commentaries are opinion pieces presenting insights, personal experiences and/or perspectives on topical issues by members of the veterinary community. To submit a commentary for consideration, email firstname.lastname@example.org.