Incoming AAHA president

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Mar 01, 2001

Practice inefficiency, sagging income and market saturation top the primary concerns of the incoming president of the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA).

"How many clinics or hospitals are working anywhere near capacity?" asks Dr. Michael Thomas. "How much time is wasted working in an inefficient facility? It may be due to a poor layout, inadequate equipment, or more commonly, not enough well-trained staff."

Thomas, who earned his associate degree from Miami Dade Junior College in 1963 and received his DVM with honors from Auburn University in 1968, owns seven hospitals in Indiana. The AAHA President-elect will take office at the association's annual meeting in San Antonio, March 10-14.

Many practice owners, Thomas says, fail to maximize their time and find themselves doing the tasks of their employees.

"The answer is (finding) better-trained staff from technician schools and running a more efficient profession that can pay these people a living wage so they can stay in the profession," he says.

Students may already be shying from veterinary medicine because of decreased salary potential, Thomas says.

"It's very difficult for a student to come out of school and make enough money to pay their student loans and have the nice life that they should have after all those years of study," says Thomas. "It's not that most practice owners are greedy, it's a matter of them just not generating enough money to support them. We need to charge appropriately for our time."

And time must be better managed on a daily basis, Thomas advises.

"If you look in most veterinary hospitals' appointment books, they have 'x' amount of appointments available for a day," says Thomas. "There's a great portion of those that are not filled. When they're not filled, that's time where there is no money generated to pay the veterinarian, for the building and equipment and the staff."

He says this issue must be addressed before people are driven from the profession.

Continuing education

Also on Thomas' priority list for his 2001-02 term is to revise continuing education.

"In my generation, we classically practiced hard and went off to meetings together, (by participating in) continuing education and reading journals," says Thomas.

He says in today's profession, as information technology rapidly evolves through modalities such as the Veterinary Information Network, the association must look at new, viable ways for people to receive their continuing education. The education issue is becoming increasingly influenced by the changing face of the profession. Thomas says that by 2004, the profession will be comprised of 50 percent women, a significant shift in gender over the past several decades.

He believes it is up to AAHA to evaluate educational solutions such as programs that could be beamed by satellite or videotapes that could be viewed while handling the responsibilities of parenting.

"If a person has to take time out to be a parent, then it is easy for them to get behind unless we come up with some way for them to keep up-to-date," says Thomas.

On the practice front

The new president plans to coordinate development of pain management guidelines for small animal veterinarians to use pre-operatively and post-operatively in the hospital and at home.

"For many years, veterinarians were taught that pain in animals was not nearly as big an issue as it was for a person. When there was pain, it was helpful, because it helped keep them (the animals) immobilized so they wouldn't hurt themselves from recovery of, say, an orthopedic surgery," explains Thomas.

However, that view has changed dramatically, according to Thomas, who says the general consensus now is that "animals do perceive pain and we can shorten recovery times ... if we use more proper pain management," he says.

"We'd like to get together some expert opinions and come up with what is the state of the art in pain management and make that public," he suggests.

Along with official guidelines, Thomas recommends AAHA develop a seminar series that stresses key elements of pain management.

Vaccination protocols

In another area of practice, Thomas believes re-evaluation of vaccination protocols is overdue.

Traditionally dogs and cats have been vaccinated every year for most types of conditions. But now, Thomas says, certain recommendations indicate that some vaccinations are not necessary for every disease.

"Some feline practitioners have come out with new guidelines that decrease the frequency of new vaccines," he says.

However, veterinarians have traditionally relied on vaccinations as a means to mobilize clients to visit the clinic annually. During the visit, veterinarians can examine the animals to try to detect other diseases.

"If they (clients) are not coming in every year, you don't have a chance to see them (the animals) regularly. It's incumbent upon us to help people understand that one of the more important things than the visit is the physical examination itself.

"Changing vaccination protocols has the potential to hurt income in a veterinary practice unless managers plan for it," Thomas says. "A shift toward more and better medical and surgical services at an appropriate fee cannot only make up for this shift but make practicing more fun and interesting."

Everyone has a say

Thomas believes in the power of communication and as proof he plans to establish a customized communications initiative during his term.

"If we want to get the word out about a dental meeting, everyone (currently) receives the same thing via brochure," he says. But, "there may be some people who would rather get the information by e-mail, by FAX or by a phone call. Rather than blanket everyone with a communication that may or may not be effective ... find out what works for each individual and be able to customize that if possible."

In today's age, an enormous amount of communication is wasted. "We're all barraged with much information and no one has time to go through it all," says Thomas, who believes the customized approach would better serve the AAHA member's needs.

One final word

At least one initiative, established by outgoing president Dr. Thomas Cusick, still weighs on Thomas' mind: practice team membership. He says the new focus on membership has not only been well received but is already 200 percent above expectations.

"I would like members to understand the value of all members of the pet health care team being involved not only in AAHA membership but providing input on the management of the hospital," says Thomas. "There are lots of smart people working for practices around the country who are not veterinarians. We need to listen to them and let them contribute not only their time but also ideas to our practices."