Letter: AVMA chief economist responds to predecessor

Praises veterinary economics commentary series for creating 'transparent dialogue'

July 11, 2019 (published)
From Matthew Salois

As an economist, I always appreciate thought-provoking articles on the state of the veterinary profession. Clearly, Michael Dicks, PhD, writes with both passion and conviction, and the end result is a heartfelt call to action for the profession ("Fixing the veterinary profession before it's too late" eight-part series, May 13-July 1, 2019).

As the American Veterinary Medical Association's current chief economist, I recognize the evolution the conversation on veterinary economics has had over the past decade and more. Economic study and data have always been important to the AVMA, and we have a long history in this area. Twenty years ago, the AVMA published a report known as the "Megastudy," which revealed various issues in desperate need of attention, including the economics of our profession. In response, the AVMA established the National Commission on Veterinary Economic Issues (NCVEI) and ultimately recognized that there should be a standalone division; hence, the AVMA economics division was formed, as well as the AVMA Veterinary Economics Strategy Committee.

Building on the foundation of the NCVEI's work, Dr. Dicks came on board as the first leader of the economics division. In the early days of all this, important work was done even though not everyone involved agreed on how to tackle it. Dr. Dicks helped identify the large levers that needed to be pulled in order for the profession to define the problems. Now we're at a place where even deeper collaborations are taking place and we can develop practical tools — smaller levers individuals can pull — that can help them in their day-to-day.

I will be honest that I don't agree with everything that was said in the recent articles (or how it was said), nor do I fully agree with all the economic conclusions made by Dr. Dicks. And this is OK! He and I are two different economists with different backgrounds and perspectives. Just like two veterinarians who can disagree on a diagnosis and treatment, so can two economists.

For me, what I want to compliment Dr. Dicks on is not necessarily his conclusions, but rather the opportunity he has opened to create a transparent dialogue on the major economic concerns confronting the veterinary profession. As I was recently reminded whilst reading The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, disagreement and conflict are not bad; in fact, they can be quite good and lead to change. The badness comes from not dealing with the conflict head-on.

And, of course, in hindsight there are always things we wish we had done better or differently.

We know that the AVMA has made mistakes. And Dr. Dicks shows great humility in sincerely pointing out the mistakes he feels he made during his tenure. I could certainly add to the discussion with my own mistakes. But the important thing is that we want to learn from those experiences. As Dr. Paul Pion, president and co-founder of the Veterinary Information Network, said in a July 3 VIN message-board post about the articles, "We all have lessons to learn — and have learned."

Today, the AVMA Economics Division is working very hard to learn from past lessons and is making improvements for the profession. Over the next few months some significant changes will be seen by the profession, and hopefully some are already visible. Here are just a few:

  • Moving away from a dense multi-report format to a more simple and stylized single Economic State of the Profession Report that will be unveiled at the AVMA Economic Summit taking place Oct. 22-23 in Chicago. The aim is to deliver economic insights in a streamlined and easy-to-read format.
  • Changes to the Economic Summit: more content and different content. More focus on developing economic thought-leadership for the profession. A very intentional effort to leverage economic insights outside the profession to ramp up our understanding of veterinary economics.
  • The introduction of regular economic content in the AVMA@Work blog, bringing a greater frequency and distribution of economic content to help facilitate the flow and communication of important economic analysis.
  • The introduction of an infographic series, which we will be launching later this year to help enhance the communication of important economic issues in an engaging and visual way, adding a data storytelling element.

In order for the profession to truly strive and be the best it can be, we need collaboration and communication between all the key stakeholders and thought leaders. While these are challenging times, they are also a time of great opportunity. We recognize AVMA does not have all the answers and feel there is much benefit in increased collaboration. We are working hard to increase our efforts in this area and have been working with VIN and the VIN Foundation to explore additional areas of partnership and collaboration. We value what they and others bring to the table and believe that together, we can make positive, tangible change.

The final article in the series leaves off with the concept of choice, and I'd like to end with that, as well. As a profession, we are facing a myriad of decisions around how to adapt to the ever-changing economy and always-evolving marketplace. You name the challenge or opportunity — consolidation, telemedicine, student debt, pricing and affordability, access to care, etc. — decisions have to be made on how to navigate through these issues and to reach success.

We are not always going to agree on what is the right choice. To think we would all agree is unrealistic. That said, as Drs. Dicks and Pion both said, what we must do is collaborate and partner. Veterinarians, practices, colleges, consultants, industry and associations — together we are greater than the sum of our parts.

In order for us to work together we must 1) identify where we do agree and run with it; 2) identify where we disagree and talk about it; and 3) predict where we need to be and work together to get there. Conversations on disagreement can be uncomfortable, as they may involve dealing with conflict head-on. But unless we do that under an umbrella of humility and respect, we cannot move forward successfully.

Success is a journey, not a destination. You never fully arrive but rather are constantly trying to seek improvement and find better ways to approach problems. Frustration can abound when the journey becomes slow-moving.

When this happens, it's easy to remain stuck in a quagmire of exasperation, feeding a mindset of "doom and gloom" and "the sky is falling." But this isn’t healthy nor is it productive and can feed a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure.

Rather, when the journey seems slow and success seems distant, taking an honest assessment of why and any wrong turns made will ultimately guide a new direction. Even to an economist, one plus one can equal three!

Matthew Salois, PhD, is chief economist of the American Veterinary Medical Association and director of the Veterinary Economics Division. He began working for the AVMA in April 2018.

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