AAVMC study to forecast veterinary medicine's future


Washington - Year 2025: Technicians rank as spay and neuter experts, veterinary education and licenses restrict via species, and agricultural practice exists as a mere memory.

WASHINGTON — Year 2025: Technicians rank as spay and neuter experts, veterinary education and licenses restrict via species, and agricultural practice exists as a mere memory.

Realities for these predictions might not be in the cards, but some of veterinary education's leaders are banking the concepts aren't far off. To understand and meet future needs of the 21st Century, the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges (AAVMC) is outlining what insiders claim is the most comprehensive strategic plan for the profession since 1989's Pew Report titled "Future Directions in Veterinary Medicine" by the Pew National Veterinary Education Program. Now the Norm Willis Group has taken over, promising to release the study "Envisioning the Future of Academic Veterinary Medicine". In February, AAVMC hired the Canadian firm for its unique forecasting system to provide multiple, plausible future scenarios for the veterinary profession. Unlike classical strategic planning, foresight analysis is a "sophisticated and strenuous effort to envision several potential futures," AAVMC says. Institutions can consider using its conclusions, slated for release later this year, to develop pro-active plans to meet future needs in veterinary education, officials say.

"If we are going to meet the challenges of the 21st Century, our colleges have to be flexible," says Dr. Andrew Maccabe, AAVMC associate executive director. "Whatever we're doing today will not be appropriate 20 years from now. The question is how different will veterinary medicine be?"


Producing an answer will cost $250,000 to $400,000, estimates Dr. Keith Prasse, former University of Georgia veterinary college dean and project coordinator for AAVMC. For now, the association, in search of a charitable foundation to underwrite the research, likely will rely on financial reserves.

"We're casting a broad net on possible funding sources," Maccabe says. "But we have to move now. Every day we wait, our future is slipping."

Foresight analysis

Information gleaned from the AAVMC foresight project is expected to improve veterinary medicine's chances for longevity and success. Such analysis takes a systematic approach to anticipating the future in terms of a five- to 25-year horizon. Unlike most strategic plans, which look three years to five years out, forecast technology considers long-range multiple scenarios, accommodates uncertainties and diversity of opinion as well as highlights emerging opportunities and threats. "You can be free of the constraints of the current environment," Maccabe says. "It's liberating that way."

Those boundless ideas likely will lead to far-reaching conclusions about the nation's future demographics, society's eating habits and gauge the adequacy and safety of the food supply, AAVMC Executive Director Larry Heider says. Such scenarios are drawn from a series of interviews with the profession's stakeholders scheduled to begin this month with a scoping meeting in Atlanta. There, insiders like Dr. Michael Blackwell, dean of the University of Tennessee's veterinary college, will join other like minds to explore historic and future models of veterinary education. Challenges likely on the menu include the breadth of veterinary medicine's standard curricula, rural, public health and biomedical workforce shortages and society's views of animals, he says. Barring a sweeping shift in veterinary medicine's educational mode, Blackwell predicts the profession's conservative nature will slow its growth. He hopes the project pushes educators toward radical change.

"The fear I have right now is we're trying to tweak a 19th Century model of licensing veterinarians when we really need to take a clean sheet of paper and redraw our whole approach," he says.

Delicate balance

That could happen, especially if veterinary educators can abandon the "unrealistic" concept of the universal veterinarian, Prasse says. Progress needed to serve society's future can start by splintering veterinary education across modalities and species, he adds.

"Even the Pew Report told us to re-orient clinical veterinary education to enable veterinary students rather than require them to obtain clinical experience with all species," he says. "The schools have indicated there's been progress, but it's clear this requires more consideration.

"Still, we should not lose track of the fact that the strength of the profession often is due to its breadth of training, which is required by our licensure exam."

Then and now

That need for a broad focus was highlighted in the Pew Report's 13 recommendations. To track progress on those proposals, AAVMC recently interviewed veterinary institutions regarding their implementation plans. Survey results will be issued in the coming months, Heider says.

Early results show the majority of Pew's recommendations are executed or ongoing in most institutions, Prasse says. In 1989, the report's suggested changing the focus of the veterinary medical profession from animal disease to animal health and all its dimensions. Nearly 30 years later, the bulk of U.S. veterinary institutions have made that shift by, in part, addressing foreign animal disease and public health, he says.

Two other areas of Pew justify closer consideration, both pertaining to research, Prasse says. One suggested faculty make research a higher priority while the other cited needed alternatives to funding research on disease.

"The schools have made great progress with regard to faculty's research productivity; most have added a large number of ways to encourage research and its experience," Prasse says. "But federal support for it has changed little since 1989. If you look at peer clinical research for veterinary issues, funding continues to be a problem outside of the (National Institutes of Health). It has not gotten any better at the United States Department of Agriculture."

If such deficiencies prove true, it's likely "Envisioning the Future of Academic Veterinary Medicine" will expand on them. Another looming concern points to replenishing academia's faculty drain, Maccabe says, where a growing human resource shortage is being compounded by specialization.

These are issues that need to be explored if the profession is to grow with society, Heider explains.

"No one has a crystal ball; we know there's some risk to this," he says. "But on the other hand, we want to be able to predict medical education more than five years out. We want to advise our colleges long term, and to do that, we're gathering some of the best thinkers in veterinary medicine."

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