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An Interview with Dr. Joe Bartges


This music-loving internist and nutrition specialist finds practicing in the university setting to be a perfect fit, but he fears the declining interest in academic work by others. "It is becoming difficult to find people who are interested in staying in academia, and there doesn't seem to be a contingency plan in place to address this problem."

Joseph W. Bartges, DVM, PhD, DACVIM, DACVN, is a professor of medicine and nutrition and the Acree Chair of Small Animal Research at The University of Tennessee's College of Veterinary Medicine and is a member of the Veterinary Medicine Editorial Advisory Board. He has received the Carl J. Norden Distinguished Teaching Award, a Pfizer Animal Health Award for Research Excellence, and a 2007 University of Tennessee National Alumni Excellence in Teaching Award.

What is the most exciting change you've seen in veterinary medicine?

The development of new technology. We have more diagnostic and therapeutic tools for use in clinical practice and more high-tech tools for use in research than ever before. Technology has even become incorporated into teaching with distance learning and telemedicine, such as the Veterinary Information Network. But it's easy to become too dependent on technology. Remember, there is no technology that beats taking a good history and performing a thorough physical examination.

Who was your most memorable patient?

All of them, but I'll mention just a few. Chuckles, a male English bulldog with urate urinary stones who triggered my dissertation work. UGA V, the English bulldog mascot for the University of Georgia I cared for, who Sports Illustrated crowned "Mascot of the Year." And Daisy, a cat with hematuria due to a contact factor deficiency, whose owner recently sent me a card to say that Daisy had lived to be 20 years old.

Who inspired you most in your career?

Dr. Carl Osborne. He taught me how to be a good veterinarian and a good person.

In my personal life, I have been inspired by several people:

  • My father, Joe. I realize now how much he sacrificed and did for me. I am happy to say that I have become my father.

  • My wife, Carol. She always keeps a positive attitude.

  • My daughter, Patrice. She maintains a personal strength that is amazing.

  • My son, Garrick. He laughs and keeps us laughing all the time.

What was the best professional advice you ever received?

There are lots, but my favorites are

  • Be passionate about being compassionate.

  • Practice 30 to 40 years of veterinary medicine and not one year 30 to 40 times.

  • A difference to be a difference must make a difference.

  • Art is I: Science is we.

  • Don't let stress become distress.

  • Veterinary medicine is a livelihood, not a life. I was told, "I have never seen a tombstone that read, 'I wish I had spent more time at work.'"

What would you advise a new graduate?

Be compassionate. Don't let veterinary medicine be your life. Take time for yourself, your family, and your friends. Plan for the future, but live in the now. Be a lifelong learner. Don't become complacent or apathetic. Keep smiling. Have fun.

What would you have liked to do if you hadn't become a veterinarian?

Be a musician. My wife and I performed in bars and at the coffee house on the Marshall University campus when we were in college. I wasn't good enough to be professional, but it would have been a blast! I still play and have a 30-year-old Martin HD-28 dreadnought, a Taylor K14C grand auditorium, a Taylor Dan Crary Signature Model dreadnought, an Ovation 12-string guitar, and a 1995 Gibson Les Paul Classic electric guitar that was played by Wayne "Animal" Turner, lead guitar player for Hank Williams, Jr., which was a gift.

Are you a cat person or a dog person?

I am a boxer person through and through.

What books would you recommend?

I have read The Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien about every one or two years since I was in junior high school. The Da Vinci Code really peaked my interest concerning the Holy Grail, and I have since read The Woman with the Alabaster Jar: Mary Magdalen and the Holy Grail and Holy Blood, Holy Grail and other books along that vein. For veterinary stories, I recommend John McCormack's Watch for a Cloud of Dust (I and II) and Fields and Pastures New: My First Year as a Country Vet.

What is your favorite film?

It's a Wonderful Life because it shows how our actions affect many people directly and indirectly.

What favorite musicians would you include on your personal jukebox?

I enjoy and listen to almost everything except rap and hip-hop. My ultimate favorite is Neil Young, but I have everything from AC/DC to ZZ Top, including rock (e.g. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young; Jimi Hendrix; Bob Dylan; Dave Matthews Band; Metallica; Lynyrd Skynyrd; Stevie Ray Vaughan; Three Days Grace), blues and jazz (e.g. B.B. King, Son House, Charlie Parker), bluegrass (e.g. Ricky Skaggs, Nickel Creek, Dan Crary), country (e.g. David Allen Coe, Keith Urban, Kenny Chesney), and acoustic (e.g. Tommy Emmanuel, Laurence Juber, Doyle Dykes, Martin Taylor).

What part of your work do you enjoy most?

All of it, which is what makes academic practice so good. I enjoy seeing cases, teaching, and generating new information that might change the way veterinary medicine is practiced. What could be better?

What do you consider the greatest threat to the profession?

The decline of academicians. It is becoming difficult to find people who are interested in staying in academia, and there doesn't seem to be a contingency plan in place to address this problem.

Which animal health need is currently unmet?

The capability to provide service to all animals. I don't know if pet insurance will make this possible or if it will become the nightmare it is in human medicine.

What is your sci-fi prediction for veterinary medicine?

Two things: the continued integration of technology into medicine, and treatment at the genetic level. We will have a Dr. McCoy tricorder that we can wave over our patients to arrive at a diagnosis and to provide treatment, perhaps even the ability to alter the genetic basis of disease.

What is the greatest achievement of your career?

Teaching. Whether teaching veterinary students, house officers, veterinarians, technicians, or the general public, I consider being a teacher the most important contribution that I have made to veterinary medicine.

What makes a good veterinarian?

Compassion. Compassionate people treat their patients, clients, colleagues, and coworkers like they want to be treated. Compassionate people continue to learn so that they can provide the best care possible. Compassionate people do not let their pride dictate their actions—they know when to ask for help, when to refer, when to admit a mistake, and when to apologize. Compassionate people are sincere.

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