Cohn poised for AVMA presidency

Kinnarney, Dee campaign for president-elect during House of Delegates meeting

July 22, 2014 (published)
By Jennifer Fiala

AVMA photo gallery
The American Veterinary Medical Association's House of Delegates will elect a candidate to be next in line for the presidency. The vote is Friday. Drs. Joe Kinnarney (left) and Larry Dee (right) are vying for the seat.

When Dr. Ted Cohn takes the stage Thursday in front of the House of Delegates, he’ll stand days shy of being named the American Veterinary Medical Association’s newly elected president.

The official title comes next week.

His appointment, however, is a done deal. Like those before him, Cohn was chosen last summer by the House to become the AVMA’s president-elect. The race was uncontested. As part of the job, he’s spent the past year prepping for the presidential position.

In Cohn’s final duties as president-elect, the small animal practitioner from Denver will take over for outgoing AVMA President Dr. Clark Fobian by opening the House of Delegates' business meeting.

Delegates are gathering this week at the Hyatt Regency at Colorado Convention Center in Denver for the annual summit, where they’ll make policy on behalf of the AVMA’s 85,000-plus members.

Cohn plans to call for ideas on improving the economics of the profession, tackling high student debt and flat incomes. He wants the profession to pay more attention to the One Health concept, which recognizes that the health of animals, humans and the environment are interconnected.

He believes that doing so might bring veterinarians more career opportunities in the public-health arena. “We’ve got to open our eyes and minds and take advantage of what’s out there,” Cohn said in a phone interview.

Cohn also would like to see more women in the profession’s leadership roles and increased numbers of underrepresented groups in veterinary medicine.

Supporting diversity, he said, is “just the right thing to do.”

Next up

While Cohn's presidential candidacy was uncontested, those next in line must campaign for the position.

Two longtime staples in organized veterinary medicine — Dr. Larry Dee of Florida and Dr. Joe Kinnarney of North Carolina — are vying for the post.

The House of Delegates will vote for a president-elect on Friday. Whomever wins will serve a yearlong term as AVMA president, starting next July. 

Both Dee and Kinnarney own practices and have sat on the AVMA Executive Board and House of Delegates.

Kinnarney has served two terms as AVMA vice president and in January, was named the AVMA’s first liaison to the American Kennel Club. Dee is an adjunct faculty member at the University of Florida’s Department of Medical Sciences.

To get to know both practitioners, the VIN News Service asked a series of questions. Here’s how the candidates responded:

Q. What do you love about being a veterinarian?

Kinnarney: I love practice! The everyday interaction with patients and clients continues to stimulate me, and knowing that I make their lives healthier and better is quite rewarding. I cannot imagine a time in my life when I am not in clinical practice.

Dee: As a companion animal practitioner, I love having the opportunity to improve people's lives by improving the health and well-being of their pets. Many think that we are in the animal business, but in fact, we are in the people business. We help people and improve their lives by caring for their pets. For more than 40 years, I have seen how the nonjudgmental love of my patients has enriched the lives of my clients. I see my job as a teacher — to teach my clients about responsible pet care, about diagnostic and therapeutic options that are available and about the potential outcomes and costs, both financial and emotional, of those choices.

Q. What’s drawn you to organized veterinary medicine?

Kinnarney: I have been an active participant in organized veterinary medicine since being president of the Student Chapter of the American Veterinary Medical Association at Cornell and then becoming Student American Veterinary Medical Association president. Since then, I went through the chairs of the North Carolina Veterinary Medical Association, spent 17 years in the House of Delegates, two years as AVMA vice president and six years on the Executive Board. I believe that being part of the process and trying to improve our profession is the only way to protect our future.

Dee: While I have always considered myself and spoken of myself primarily as a practitioner, I have had two mentors who greatly influenced my efforts in organized veterinary medicine. The first was my father, Clarence Dee, who was active throughout his career, serving as Florida Veterinary Medical Association president and serving for 24 years on the Florida Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners. My second mentor and first employer was William F. Jackson from Lakeland, Florida, whose love for and participation in continuing education and service to the profession was a role model for me. Both of these individuals exemplified the concept of service to the profession and their communities, and I valued the opportunity to follow in their footsteps.

Q. What is your platform? What do you hope to achieve during your year as AVMA president?

Kinnarney: There are two major areas that AVMA must focus on. The first is the economic issues facing our profession. Student debt is at an all-time high and will continue to worsen, especially since the government is not subsidizing interest while students are still in school or furthering their education doing internships and residencies. Also, during the last 30 years, veterinarians have dropped from third in professional income to fourteenth. We must address this trend. Raising incomes of all veterinarians is essential to our profession’s economic health. To do this we must educate the American public about the value that we add to everyone’s quality of life. From companion animal, food animal, public health, food safety, biosecurity, research and many other modalities, veterinarians make the lives of all Americans better and safer. We must be more aggressive in making this well known and staying in the public eye.

The second is communication. It is apparent that AVMA has not been effective in communicating to our members all the benefits that come with AVMA membership. From advocacy, accreditation, economics and student services to insurances and education, our members are not fully aware of all the great things that AVMA does for them and our profession. We must take a close look at how we reach out to veterinarians and improve our communication efforts.

Dee: It's a common misconception that the AVMA president must have a specific goal that will direct the association to the left or to the right of some issue. The fallacy of this concept is that in each succeeding year, the Association would wander to the left or to the right depending on the notions of the current president. Firstly, the president doesn't have the authority to make wholesale changes. The Executive Board, whose agenda is developed by the board chair with input from the Board of Governors, Executive Board members and the House of Delegates, determines the direction of the association

The president can emphasize specific aspects of the strategic goals that have been developed by the association. An outstanding example would be the dramatic and insightful emphasis on animal welfare issues during the leadership of Dr. Bonnie Beaver. Having served on the most recent Strategic Planning Task Force, as president-elect I would continue our efforts to implement the five strategic goals developed by that task force until the current Strategic Management Process completes its charge. Of the five current strategic goals, the two that have had the least action are the following: to “catalyze a transformation of veterinary medical education” and “to enhance membership participation and engagement." While much effort is continuing on the latter, little has been done on the former, perhaps due to the lack of AVMA authority or due to the potential political ramifications.

My goals relate more to vision than to specific actions. I would hope that during my tenure the AVMA will be more agile, more transparent and more responsive to the membership. The current Strategic Management Process is working towards these goals.

Q. How has the profession changed since you started out in practice? What do you think of the direction it's taking? 

There has been a huge increase in quality of services and technology that we offer our patients and clients. We are able to do a better job caring for our patients, and we have advanced tools to help them lead healthier lives. Technology improves every year, so the quality of care in the future is expected to improve as well. The problem is, the income has not kept up with the services we offer. In today’s economy, practice owners face steep challenges in managing and maintaining financially viable successful practices.

Dee: While we remember the good old days and the high level of collegiality we enjoyed, there are many things we will not miss: the lack of heartworm preventatives, the lack of automated chemistries, the lack of readily available consultants and the lack of responsible pet owners.

Life is fraught with change. Veterinary medicine is no different. Change can be seen as a threat or an opportunity. We cannot avoid it, we can only respond to it or be preempted by it. The profession has many challenges in the coming years. I like to think of them as opportunities.

Q. What do you consider to be the No. 1 challenge new veterinarians face as they enter practice?

The rising student debt coupled with veterinary income not being what it once was are the biggest challenges that face our new graduates. Our new graduates continue to be the brightest and the best but are faced with economic turmoil. These young veterinarians are having to try to pay debts while also trying to balance work with their family lives and on an income that has, at best, remained flat for the past six-plus years. The future for them rests with our profession finding and implementing solutions.

Dee: Having served as a mentor for several generations of young veterinarians, I fear that in spite of all our efforts, many recent graduates may find their debt load unsustainable. It is frustrating to be given the responsibility for this state of affairs without having the authority to make any substantive change.

Q. What do you make of the assertion that pockets of the United States are oversaturated with veterinarians?

Kinnarney: There are pockets of the country that are oversaturated with veterinarians as well as areas that are underserved. The AVMA Veterinary Economics Division has been created to help investigate and identify solutions to our profession’s economic issues. Research conducted by the division will give us vital information that we can use to go forward.

Dee: I think this is a true statement. Perhaps a better statement would be that in some areas, supply exceeds demand. I have always practiced in Florida, which historically has been recession-proof. I have sympathized with colleagues in various parts of the country as they went through a recession. During this past recession, parts of Florida were severely affected, causing a decrease in the demand for veterinary services. The supply hadn’t changed much, the demand had. It is noteworthy that four workforce studies over the past 25 years have said that we had an oversupply of veterinarians. And yet during that period, most veterinarians developed and maintained successful practices, seemingly unaware of the “oversupply.”

Q. A growing number of veterinarians are calling for an end to the AVMA's efforts to accredit foreign veterinary schools. What is your stance on that?

Kinnarney: I support accreditation of foreign schools as long as the process is at NO cost to our members, and the Council on Education has adequate resources to accomplish all of its assigned tasks and responsibilities. In a world that is getting smaller, it is important that there is a high standard of veterinary education around the world. Meeting these standards is important in enhancing both public and animal health.

Dee: I will make the observation that accreditation of foreign veterinary schools only became an issue when the economy declined. I can recall Dr. Jack Judy at the 1968 AVMA convention discussing the effects of the economy on veterinary collegiality, participation and profitability.

It is noteworthy that the increases in class sizes of U.S. schools have a greater impact on our workforce than the number of students returning after graduating from an accredited foreign school. Ross University may be the exception, but its students depend on the willingness of our universities to expand the size of their fourth-year classes to accommodate them. 

Some would say that the initial goal of foreign accreditation was to improve educational standards worldwide, but now accreditation is used to enable U.S. students training overseas to have access to federal dollars. Others would ask, “Is their dream to become a veterinarian any less valid than that of a student accepted to a U.S. school?”

If the House of Delegates and the Executive Board had elected to discontinue foreign accreditation, the association would have been exposed to several legal threats, primarily from every foreign school that is currently accredited, with the lesser possibility of action by the Federal Trade Commission. Others will contend that these risks are minimal; however, they are not responsible for our members’ dues dollars.

Update: Dr. Joe Kinnarney won the election and now is the AVMA's president-elect. 

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