Michael Dicks announces retirement from post as AVMA econ chief

November 9, 2017
Kristi Reimer Fender, News Channel Director

Kristi Reimer is editor of dvm360 magazine and news channel director for dvm360.com. Before taking over

Director of associations first Veterinary Economics Division says challenges to the profession are considerable; financial acumen will be key to success of profession.

Dr. Michael Dicks takes a moment during his speech announcing his retirement from his role as director of the AVMA Veterinary Economics Division.In an announcement during the AVMA's Veterinary Economic Summit Oct. 23, Michael Dicks, PhD, announced that he would be retiring from his role as the association's chief economist after the AVMA's annual convention in July 2018.

“Believe it or not, I'm ready to rest and relax,” Dicks told summit attendees gathered for dinner in a Hilton ballroom in Chicago. “I've been working since I was 13, and I want to get up one day in my life and say, ‘I don't have anything to do today.'”

Dicks joined the AVMA in 2013 as director of the association's first Veterinary Economics Division. He set about hiring a team of economists with the goal of analyzing the veterinary markets, improving the economic environment for veterinarians and improving the performance of veterinary practices. To do that he needed a crash course in the profession-and the profession came through, he says.

“A lot of you have helped me, mentored me and provided me information,” Dicks said. “I couldn't ask for a better group of people to work with. It's been an honor to lead this work, and I'm indebted to you for your friendship and your guidance and your trust.”

In the last five years Dicks and his team have conducted countless surveys, built a number of financial tools for veterinarians to use, published the AVMA Report on Veterinary Markets series, spoken at conferences and other industry events, and published a monthly column in dvm360 magazine and on dvm360.com, among other endeavors. Many of those efforts will continue under the direction of the current team.

“We have hired an incredible staff,” Dicks said, referring to his squad of PhD analysts, most of whom he hired straight out of grad school. “These people are some of the top economists I've ever worked with, and they're still here. They're the ones who do the work. I know what they're capable of, and I know you can count on them.”

Dicks is excited about several projects that are just now coming to fruition, including the development of an economic modeling system that will allow the AVMA to predict the impact of specific changes on the profession, such as an increase in the supply of veterinarians entering the market every year. To help ensure that those efforts continue, Dicks will be assisting with the search for a new director of veterinary economics to take over when he retires in July.

“I believe we're very close to having one of the best economic programs of any profession that I've ever worked with,” he says. “I want to make sure we continue on that path. And I believe the AVMA leadership and the VESC [Veterinary Economics Strategy Committee] are positioned to do that.”

The challenges the profession faces going forward are considerable, and they're unprecedented in the veterinary field, Dicks says. Despite his efforts to remain a purely objective analyst, he has begun to take some of those challenges personally-especially the trend toward consolidation and the question of whether veterinarians, corporations or private equity will be the ones to direct the future of the profession.

Other highlights from the Economic Summit

Here are some additional trends and forecasts experts discussed at the AVMA Economic Summit in October:

Many indicators suggest that the economy will continue to expand in the next 18 to 24 months, which means veterinary practices will do better financially in 2018 than they did in 2017-which was already a good year for many.

A tight labor market means practices will be more likely to have trouble finding and hiring qualified employees.

An expanding economy and tight labor market mean prices for new equipment and facility construction are at high levels. The best strategy for right now is to “put up hay,” as Dr. Michael Dicks says, and wait for the next downturn to spend your hard-earned cash-it will go farther.

The “retail apocalypse” affecting brick-and-mortar businesses will have an impact on traditional veterinary practices, which operate in the retail space.

According to data from the veterinary school applicant pool, there has been a slight increase in interest in rural veterinary medicine.

Stringent requirements in the veterinary school application process-especially those for relevant experience-might be unfairly pushing out applicants with a low socioeconomic status, who might be some of the “grittiest” applicants with the highest potential, says Lisa Greenhill, MPA, EdD, of the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges.

Full-time companion animal employment is at its highest point since 2008, and internship employment is at its lowest (which means that “excess capacity” is a thing of the past).

The gender wage gap has shrunk from 9 percent in 2012 to 4 percent in 2017.

Reauthorization of the Higher Education Act may include changes such as capping cumulative borrowing at $150,000 for graduate school and eliminating or curtailing the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program (veterinary lobbyists are actively opposing both measures).

According to the forthcoming pet demographics study, dog ownership is at its highest level ever, and cat ownership is at its lowest.

“I've gotten so close to veterinarians that it's difficult to be a non-biased economist,” he said. “I often wonder when I present results, who's going to use those results? Are the right people going to use them? I'm here to help AVMA members and veterinarians. I'm really not here to help corporate America.”

Despite this, Dicks says he sometimes feels like he's doing more for the people who are “trying to gobble up the profession” than for the profession itself. “It's trying on me,” he says. “It's time for someone to come in and take the baton and start the race the way I did-to put that energy in and leave everything on the field.”

Part of what Dicks has focused on more recently-and which he believes is important going into the future-is improving the financial literacy of individual veterinarians and their teams. This will help them better utilize the information provided by the Economics Division and other analysts and resources, he says.

“Many of the problems in the profession stem from financial illiteracy,” he says. “There's so much out there for veterinarians, but they're not using it. How do we get the information we're providing into the hands of veterinarians-owners, managers and staff-so that better financial decisions can be made? That's something we have to figure out moving forward.”

In his retirement Dicks plans to spend more time with his family, finish several books he's been writing, and sail the open waters. “I'm actually waiting for a call right now because I put an offer on a boat,” he told summit attendees. “I am literally going to sail off into the next big adventure.

“I'm excited about what's next for the profession, but I'm equally excited about what's next for me,” he continued. “Some of you have heard me talk about blue ocean opportunities-this is truly a blue ocean opportunity for me. You know, I love people, but I love being away from them too. And more importantly, some of those people love being away from me!”

Dicks says he can walk away with pride knowing that he helped establish the AVMA's first Veterinary Economics Division-and convincing his detractors that he really does want what's best for veterinary medicine. “I've worked with a lot of people over the years,” he says. “Some relationships started off rocky, but when people took the time to figure out that I'm talking from data and analysis, and that I do want the best for the profession, we've formed a great relationship and moved forward.

“In this profession, I think there needs to be a lot more cooperation and a lot less focus on what's wrong,” he continues. “There's so much that's great about the profession, and so many good people who have so much great information and data to share, that if we all collaborate we'll get there a lot quicker.”

Dicks says he doesn't like the word “legacy”-but he gets asked about it anyway. “I'm an educator and a farmer, and both have in common the planting of seeds,” he says. “Throughout my career as an educator, my sole goal was to change one person at a time, to plant a seed that I could watch develop over the years. And I hope I've done that here. I hope the seeds I've planted with the AVMA-the important seeds of economics and financial knowledge-will help each veterinarian reach the professional and personal goals they dreamed of when they began the long process of becoming a veterinarian.”