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Words of Wisdom

Article

On the eve of his retirement from the University of Tennessee's veterinary college, Dean Michael Blackwell, DVM, reflects on all he's learned. In an interview with Your DVM Career, he conveys his wisdom to veterinary medical students. In his own words, Blackwell talks about the veterinary profession's responsibility to society, clients and public health. "These are things I wish I had known while studying for this profession. I actually practice what I'm sharing," he says.

On the eve of his retirement from the University of Tennessee's veterinary college, Dean Michael Blackwell, DVM, reflects on all he's learned. In an interview with Your DVM Career, he conveys his wisdom to veterinary medical students. In his own words, Blackwell talks about the veterinary profession's responsibility to society, clients and public health. "These are things I wish I had known while studying for this profession. I actually practice what I'm sharing," he says.

Dr. Michael Blackwell

Respect the profession's breadth

I don't think I clearly understood or appreciated the doctor of veterinary medicine degree as a comparative medicine degree. I was too busy thinking about clinical practice.

But of the medical degrees offered by our country, and for that matter the world, the only one that's a comparative degree is the DVM. It's absolutely a tremendous knowledge base. No one else has that. It speaks volumes about the level of responsibility we have as a profession to society.

Public health falls on veterinary medicine's shoulders

I think the public health element of veterinary medicine has received more attention, but it's still downplayed. The interaction between humans and the environment is really complex. As we seek to improve the quality of life of animals, part of that calls for understanding how diseases get distributed and how to control them.

As a student, I didn't appreciate the critical role that veterinarians have in this arena, and I think that's so unfortunate. A student's hearing and recall are selective. I'm trying to emphasize this now, and it's what has brought me to academic veterinary medicine. I certainly didn't grow up to be a dean. As former chief of staff to the U.S. surgeon general, I became concerned about the lack of focus in public health as the profession migrates to clinical medicine.

Consider the human element

The mental and emotional health of the people we serve as clients was overlooked when I was a student, and I think it still is today. To address this problem, we started a veterinary social-work program at the University of Tennessee, and it's one I hope students at other institutions will consider.

The human-animal bond has challenged the profession. How do we better serve our clients? The answer is we change our mindset. Caring for animals is the means by which we are serving the needs of people, not the other way around. I think that it's important that veterinary students who spend their four years focused only on animals understand that. We need to partner with other professionals to address human mental and emotional needs. This will be a growing area in veterinary medicine.

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