Boyce ushers major changes to NAVLE while eyeing retirement

Partnership with human medicine poised to modernize veterinary exam

March 3, 2014 (published)
By Jennifer Fiala

Photo courtesy of Dr. John Boyce
Dr. John Boyce's post-retirement plans include plenty of road trips with his wife, Susan, in their 2006 Porsche 911 Carrera Coupe. "I'm not going to sit around and watch 'The Price is Right' all day," he joked. "My bag fits in the back seat and hers in the trunk. It's perfect for us."
The examination all aspiring veterinarians must pass in order to practice in the United States and Canada is getting a facelift from evaluators in human medicine.

It’s likely to be a final and lasting mark Dr. John Boyce leaves on the North American Veterinary Licensing Examination (NAVLE), a 360-item multiple-choice test that roughly 5,000 candidates take annually.  

“I see colleagues my age or older who continue to serve, and you have to respect them for that,” Boyce said. “But you have to leave room for younger people to step in and take over.”

At almost 63, Boyce is leaving the National Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners (NBVME). The independent nonprofit has developed and managed the NAVLE since the mid-1990s, when Boyce helped facilitate the examination’s spinoff from the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA).

The AVMA involvement with the national licensing exam was controversial. It spurred concerns from state licensing boards that the association’s role as a membership body conflicted with its role as test administrator. Boyce, then-assistant director of AVMA’s scientific activities division, left his steady paycheck in 1994 to start the NBVME, a mom-and-pop autonomous testing organization. 

Dr. Dennis Feinberg, a practitioner from South Carolina who's spent eight years volunteering on the NBVME board, describes Boyce as a “straight shooter” who shuns the internal politics of organized veterinary medicine. 

“He has a passion, and he’s always been a person who’s wanted to do the right thing,” Feinberg said. “He’s had a dramatic impact on the profession. “

Twenty years after the NBVME's modest beginnings, Boyce is still at it.

On Feb. 27, he signed a deal on behalf of the NBVME to collaborate with the organization’s counterpart in human medicine, the National Board of Medical Examiners (NBME).

NBME President Dr. Donald Melnick, who also signed the agreement, could not be reached for comment. 

The NBME manages the U.S. Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE), which tests the medical skills and knowledge of physicians for licensure to practice in the United States. About 40,000 candidates take the USMLE annually.

The USMLE is broken into three segments that medical students take during different stages of their education, starting during their second year of medical school. While the USMLE involves some multiple-choice assessment, the test also contains components on communication and computerized case simulation.

“It’s really phenomenal,” Boyce said. “These types of enhancements are expensive. We don’t have an enormous amount of money used to do that, so we intend to draw on the expertise of the NBME.”

It's a partnership that's three years in the making. In coming months, leaders from NBME and NBVME will join to create a committee charged with assessing and renovating the NAVLE.

“Hopefully, the NAVLE will become something more than a multiple-choice test,” Boyce said. “We’ll be the parent organization, but the actual running of the NAVLE will be done by this joint committee.”

“We should see the NAVLE look different within the next two to three years,” he predicted.

Boyce declined to elaborate because the ink hasn’t dried on the NBME-NBVME agreement, referred to as the Collaboration for Veterinary Assessments (CVA). "It's premature," he said. 

The CVA agreement creates a CVA Governance Committee, comprised of five members from each organization. The governance committee will assume primary oversight of the NAVLE, setting examination fees and implementing test enhancements.

The NBVME will retain ownership of the NAVLE. The agreement reads, “… Collaboration will preserve the identity and role of the NAVLE examination system in veterinary licensure, enhance efficiency of the examination design and delivery process and permit the incorporation of new methods of assessment deemed relevant to the examination as efficiently as possible, while meeting the changing needs of the veterinary medical assessment process.”

Feinberg, who's been involved with the collaboration since its outset, describes the NBME as an assessment organization at the peak of innovating testing.  

"This collaboration is going to be a big undertaking," he said. "They are technologically advanced and have done a lot more in testing. The sky is the limit." 

Feinberg is part of a five-member search committee to find Boyce's replacement. Already six months into the process, he expects soon to announce the NBVME's new executive director. 

That doesn't mean Boyce will turn in his keys immediately. For now, he's staying on as needed to help facilitate the NBME-NBVME agreement.

"This is the biggest thing that's happened to us in recent years," he said. "I want to see it succeed." 

As for the future of the NBVME, Boyce envisions the organization branching out to offer examinations beyond the NAVLE, perhaps for veterinary schools or specialties. Right now, a handful of veterinary organizations offer a variety of examinations for the profession. 

"The NBVME has gone from being a committee of the AVMA with no money, to having to report to the AVMA, and finally, becoming independent with a decent budget and a really good test," he said. "I would like see it fulfill its vision of being the testing organization for veterinary medicine.

"I think it makes sense to have one body overseeing everything," he added.  

It's unclear whether the NBVME headquarters will remain in Bismarck, N.D., near the homes of Boyce and his four staff members. A 1974 graduate of Michigan State University, Boyce grew up in the Midwest. He began his career with the Army Veterinary Corps and went on to earn a doctorate in microbiology from the University of Tennessee. He taught at Purdue University's veterinary school during the 1980s before becoming a full-time staff member of the AVMA.

He plans to spend his free time with his wife, Susan, and their three adult children. He also will continue serving as executive secretary of the North Dakota Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners. 

"It's a small job because it’s a small state. We have around 400 licenses," Boyce said. "But it will keep my hands in this sort of work."

It also makes it easier to face retirement. 

"One of the best parts of my job has been working with the item writers and reviewers who volunteer their time to write test questions for the NAVLE," Boyce said. "I've really enjoyed going to meetings and watching these people work. In a small way, each has helped to shape the future of the profession. I think it's been an honor to work with them." 

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