Adam Christman interviews AVMA President Lori Teller at WVC 2023


Teller shares her experience as AVMA president, how the AVMA impacts the veterinary profession, and what’s next for her career in vet med

Content sponsored by AVMA

At WVC 2023, dvm360®’s chief veterinary officer Adam Christman, DVM, MBA sat down for an interview with AVMA president Lori M. Teller, DVM, DABVP (canine/feline), CVJ. The pair took a deep dive into the work AVMA does for the veterinary profession and examined the role the president plays in achieving the organization’s goals.

Note: The dialogue has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

Adam Christman, DVM, MBA: We’re so happy to have you here and thank you so much to our friends at the AVMA for supporting this wonderful session. Can you tell us a little about yourself?

Lori M. Teller, DVM, DABVP (canine/feline), CVJ: I was in private practice until 2018, so I completely relate to all of our friends out there in private practice. Then I was recruited to join the faculty at Texas A&M, so now I am teaching our future colleagues and I love it. Students are amazing.

Christman: What was your inspiration to enter this field and how did you become the president of the AVMA?

Teller: I always wanted to be a veterinarian. I'm one of those stereotypical little girls who said, “I'm going to be a veterinarian.” And when I was 12, my dad asked if I knew that being a veterinarian is not playing with puppies and kitties all day. So, I went to our family vet and hung out with him every summer until I could get an after-school job…and then I went back and practiced there for 28 years. It was amazing.

I have always been involved in leadership, and I think the best way to affect positive change in an organization is to be a part of it. Let your voice be heard; take an active part in whatever it is that you want to advance and move forward, improve, and see change. And if you don't step up and let your voice be heard, then you don't really have a place to complain.

Christman: That's what I love so much about organized medicine: You have to be part of the solution together. Why should a veterinarian join the AVMA?

Teller: Because we're amazing! The AVMA does so much, and the fact is, we do so much that it's hard to tell people how much we do. Our resources were incredible during COVID. We pivoted to make sure everything covered COVID— from practice management, management resources, to safety resources to client education resources, we were advocating in DC about making sure that we were considered essential employers.

One of the things we're working on right now is the healthy dogs importation act. Lots and lots of dogs are being imported to the US. And some of those have come with rabies, brucellosis, and other diseases that we don't want to spread. We're happy to have dogs imported here, but we want them to be healthy.

Now, xylazine is going to be scheduled. The DEA and Congress have told us that, but we want to make sure it's scheduled in a way that veterinarians can still use it, and that there is a transition time so that they pass the law and clinicians can make an adjustment before it’s illegal unless you're keeping logs and don't have the right label on the bottle.

We also really appreciate the importance of well-being. We have tremendous well-being resources available to our members, everything from things you can do for self-care, to how to react to cyberbullying. That's a tremendous problem right now. And we are bringing other experts together to work with us because we know we don't alone have the answers, but we know people who do.

Christman: What are some relevant topics that are impacting veterinarians today?

Teller: One of our major areas is related to the medications we use as antimicrobials. The AVMA has some tremendous resources related to antimicrobial stewardship. One of the amazing things about this is veterinarians now have more say. Important antimicrobials available over the counter are moving to prescriptions status. Whether you’re companion animal, food animal, whatever you do, you're going to have to work with your veterinarian to get the appropriate antibiotic to use for your animal. And that's super important because we are concerned about resistance issues. Human medicine is concerned about resistance issues, and we don't want to see antimicrobials being used irresponsibly on the veterinary side because then we lose that. And our human friends, if they get sick and are in the hospital, we want to know that medications are also available for them to use and that those will work.

Another part of that is compounding. The FDA came out with recent guidance on compounding and the AVMA has been very involved in making sure that those guidance documents are practical and workable for us. We have weekly phone calls with the FDA to continue to see how those can do better going forward. And if people can't find a medication on there that they really think they need to use, whether it's in the form or the drug or the dosage, the AVMA is helping those veterinarians work with the FDA to get those medications approved. That's true on the companion animal side and on the food animal side.

In addition, animal welfare is one of our babies. We have a huge committee that brings experts from across the spectrum of practice and industry and research and education to address animal welfare issues. And this can go from something regarding cosmetic procedures on pets, to pain control in large animals, balancing that pain control with also having a safe food supply.

We have an award-winning competition called AWJAC, and that's an animal welfare judging assessment contest, and that is open to veterinary students. We've even now expanded that to residents and some practitioners. They are presented with animal welfare scenarios and how they would handle that. And then we have people judge that and it's amazing to see what the students learn from this, both on the food animal and companion animal side.

Something that's just near and dear to my heart is telemedicine and telehealth. That's one of the things I do at Texas A&M. Technology can do so much to help us do a more efficient job of practicing, and AVMA, along with Veterinary Study Groups and Merck Animal Health, created the Coalition for Connected Veterinary Care. One of our main goals is providing resources to practitioners so they can appropriately integrate telehealth and telemedicine into their practice. We do believe in the in-person veterinary client patient relationship, because there's so much to getting to know the client that's a part of then being able to use telemedicine. I have some research projects going on myself with this. And so, seeing how in-person combined with telemedicine works together in a hybrid fashion really provides amazing care to our patients and provides convenience to our clients. It lets us know if people are being compliant with our recommendations and helps us monitor chronic diseases. I think it's amazing that AVMA is so involved in this space.

Christman: I'm screaming, because - yes! We're so good at identifying problems in our profession, and here's a great solution that can help with so many different things.

Teller: We have resources for veterinary technicians, too, so it doesn't all have to be on the veterinarian. Your technicians can also help you incorporate telehealth and telemedicine into your practice.

Christman: Love that! So, the profession is always evolving. What is the mission statement of the AVMA and how does the AVMA continue to maintain its mission?

Teller: Our mission is to support our members and veterinarians in the veterinary profession. We are a member-driven organization. We hear from our members about what's important to them. We can also look at that in terms of the bigger cultural and environmental impact. We need to know what's going on in the ground level, and then we need to know how that looks in the bigger picture.

So, our mission is to represent our members, and 75% of veterinarians in the US are members of the AVMA. There are not a lot of organizations that can make that claim, and that's because we're relevant. We're hearing what our members say and we develop the resources that they need. We work with others to come together. We're known as the convener because we can bring together government officials, industry officials, practitioners, whether they're independent or part of a large corporation, and work together to find solutions that help everybody. And then that improves not only what we do, but also our patient care.

Christman: Absolutely, and the organization does it in such a great way on a local and also national level. And I know from being on the board of the New Jersey Veterinary Medical Association, it's really cool just to kind of see what that pipeline looks like, and I always encourage new graduates to join the AVMA.

So, what are some of the benefits of joining the AVMA?

Teller: I'm dealing with students all the time, and I mentor new grads. Of course, one of their biggest issues is student debt, so we have resources on how to plan for student debt. We have started a pilot program on helping students and recent grads manage their money. What is the appropriate repayment plan? What happens if there is some student debt forgiveness? How is that going to impact you? What happens if you sign one of these contracts with these huge bonuses that can impact your student debt repayments and your taxes?

Additionally, our well-being resources are tremendous, and we have a whole micro website just aimed at students and recent grads called My Veterinary Life. We have a great podcast on that where we bring experts on. We really want to focus on that segment, because we know that transition from being a student to entering practice can be culture shock. And so, those kinds of things we are really advocating for both at the cultural practice level, and then again, advocating at the Capitol to help alleviate the impacts of student debt.

We have a brand new resource called the Language of Veterinary Care, which focuses on how you can have important conversations with clients. That was particularly hard for some of our recent grads coming through the pandemic; they maybe didn't get as much exposure to that. Also, there seems to be more conflict in general, and this tool can help deflect that conflict and get the client to work with you to provide care to that patient. That's a tremendous resource available on the website and we also have a flip book you can keep on the shelf for you and your staff.

Christman: I love that you have information on spectrum of care and modules for DEI. Talk to me a little about that, because that is really, really good.

Teller: Super, super excited about this. We hired Dr. Latonia Craig who is so, so awesome. She is such a trailblazer in DEI in general, and she is taking the lead on our Journey for Teams initiative that we just launched at the end of last year. There's a new 15-minute module released every month. You can do it as part as a staff meeting so everybody can get involved, or you can do it individually -- whatever works for your practice.

The 15-minute module includes three short discussion questions and your takeaways from it. There is a module on the power of diversity, on psychological safety, and one on unconscious bias. A new module drops every month, and it’s tremendous. The idea is to incorporate those lessons into your day-to-day practice. It’s about not only how you relate as a team, but also with your clients because the population of the US is very diverse, and we have to be able to relate to people where they are and understand where they're coming from.

Christman: I love that there's new information that's being pumped out monthly because it's always evolving and changing. Absolutely wonderful. I know the AVMA also has a charitable arm, so tell me a little bit American Veterinary Medical Foundation.

Teller: We do a lot of charitable work. We provide scholarships to students and veterinary technicians as well. We do a lot in the disaster relief area. We've been working very closely with Ukraine. That's been, as you've seen, just traumatizing to everybody, and we’ve sent significant resources to them.

We are going to make a donation to the earthquake victims in Turkey and Syria. We're currently researching the appropriate channels to get the money where it needs to be. Then of course, domestically: hurricanes, wildfires, tornadoes—we’re there for all of those people. And even if someone's just struggling on a personal level, for inst,ance if you had a house fire, we are there to help. Or if you're a veterinarian that has responded to one of these disasters, perhaps you are housing some of the pets, we have the resources to help you as well.

Christman: Wonderful. So, what is the Board of Director's role with all of this?

Teller: The AVMA Board of Directors oversees our policymaking, financial disbursements, and manages our budget. So, we are kind of where the buck stops. And we evaluate our strategy. We have a strategy committee, budget committee, and various other committees, and we determine the overall strategy of the AVMA. We have amazing staff, and they help us, of course with our strategy development, and then they are there to help us carry it out.

It's a tremendous team and I love working with my fellow Board members, the staff, and also all of the volunteers because we have so many committees, and those committees are full of experts in various individual areas. For instance, our animal welfare committee, our economics committee—all of these people bring subject matter expertise to the table. When we develop policies that the Board reviews, or that the House of Delegates reviews, we know that those have come from people who work across the profession and have specific areas of expertise.

Christman: When I go to the AVMA conventions, it's just so fascinating to see all of it come together when you see all the committees. It makes me so proud to be a veterinarian.

Teller: It's a such a feel-good environment to be in.

Christman: I want to now transition over to you. What does it look like to be AVMA president?

Teller: The main role of the AVMA president is to be the spokesperson, the public face of the AVMA. So, whatever we decided at the Board level or on certain policies, things that have come up, my job is to help educate people about it. That includes veterinarians and our practice team colleagues as well as the media, legislators, general public, and other stakeholders that may be involved in the profession and are interested in the profession. I take the decisions that have been made and I try to elevate that to everyone else who needs to learn about what we're doing. It is hard because there's so much that we're doing!

Christman: What is the role of the Board chair and the vice president?

Teller: The Board chair is more internal and sets our Board agendas to make sure that we are getting the business done that we need to get done. If policies come forward, they are making sure we review those. It's herding cats! The vice president is a really unique and fun role. That person is the liaison to SAVMA (the Student AVMA), the veterinary schools and veterinary students and also works with the faculty and deans so that they're aware of what the AVMA is doing for students and academia. They also bring back to the Board what's happening at the schools to make sure that the programming or resources we provide to our students is appropriate for their needs.

Christman: Yeah, that sounds like you're talking about being a connector and a liaison. It's awesome to get such a pulse on the future generations. Okay, what about delegates? Who are they and how does that work?

Teller: So, we have the Board, which is the chair and the president, and then also the Board includes district directors that come from regions around the country. Everybody on the board has one vote. Then we have the House of Delegates, and these are representatives from 70 different organizations. This includes all of the state VMAs as well as our allied groups. Delegates have to be a member of the AVMA and they have to be a veterinarian, and they represent their group. Policies that are specific to how we practice veterinary medicine, some of our bylaws and things like that, those items must go through the House of Delegates, which meets twice a year.

They also will come together for what we call the Veterinary Information Forum. In the Forum, they discuss really hot topics in the profession. In our last forum in January, we discussed if there is a need for a mid-level practitioner and then we discussed wellbeing in the workplace. The delegates all got to contribute to those topics. Then we reviewed several policies that came through and the delegates get to vote on those policies and determine if that will be AVMA policy moving forward on whatever that topic was.

The other important role of our delegates is they are the ones who vote for the next president-elect, so they are representing their organization and their constituents. The votes of the delegates are weighted. For instance, Texas, where I'm from, has a bigger vote than Oklahoma. That's because it's based on the number of AVMA members in your state. It’s the House of Delegates that are the ones voting for the next president-elect as well as the vice president.

Christman: When does voting begin and how does that work?

Teller: Voting happens at our convention every summer. You announce your campaign the year before. So, for instance, this coming July, we will have somebody or multiple somebodies announce their candidacy for next year. At our convention in Philadelphia this past year, we actually had three people announce their candidacy, which is a record. We've never had three candidates at once before. It’s wonderful that this many people want to come serve and lead the AVMA. They have been campaigning all year, and they do that by visiting with the organizations that are represented in the House of Delegates, since those are the people that vote. Come this July, when we meet in Denver, the delegates will vote and choose our next president-elect.

Christman: You did a wonderful job as president of AVMA. What are some things that you're super proud of?

Teller: I think what I really love is the ability to be on the ground and in the trenches. I'm still working. That was really important to me, to be a working person as AVMA president, because I feel all those same pains in the trenches. When I am out meeting with people, they say they read my president's column in JAVMA (which I didn't think anybody ever read!) and they're like, “You know, I really like that you're talking in your own voice, because I can relate to that and that you seem to understand the diversity issues.” The workforce issues, the economic issues, the cyberbullying issues—all of these things make it real, and it makes the AVMA real. We're real people at the AVMA, sharing these real experiences!

And so, I think I'm most proud of just being able to put a face on that. I've been able to do that not just with veterinarians, but also with the news media and with legislators at both the state and federal levels. That is what has touched me the most.

Christman: You still have some time left as AVMA president, but what are the immediate next steps after closing out your role as president?

Teller: I will become the immediate past president, also known by one of our Australian colleagues as “the dead president,” but I will be far from dead and certainly not quiet. The main role, besides just continuing to promote AVMA messaging is to become chair of the American Veterinary Medical Foundation. Being able to continue the projects that we've been doing, developing the resources, providing charitable care to owners who may not be able to afford something for their patient. That’s a really amazing thing that we can do. It breaks my heart when a client’s pet has something treatable, and they don't have the resources to do it. So, the AVMF can also really help in those cases. It's a pretty simple application process for a veterinarian to go through to get those funds to help a client, so I'm looking forward to being able to help those people.

Christman: That’s for one year. What’s the next chapter after that?

Teller: I love veterinary medicine. I love being a veterinarian. I will not go silently into this good night. I do have a couple of things I'm contemplating and have been asked to do. I’m weighing my options there, but whatever it is, I will still be very much engaged in organized veterinary medicine. I believe in that. I believe in being a veterinarian. If I had to do it all over again, hands down, I would still choose to be a veterinarian today. I really don't think there's any other profession that can be as amazing as what we get to do.

Christman: It’s the best “paw-fression” there is.

Teller: I love it! I am in the veterinary “paw-fression,” and I would do that again.

Christman: Thank you for everything that you have done. Our profession is that much brighter with your leadership. Thank you for being you.

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