Learnings From Dr. Leininger: Of Course You’re Going To Do That!

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Power of Pink Honoree Dr. Mary Beth Leininger Honored for Over Fifty Years of Service, First Woman AVMA President & A Whole Lot More

I’ve had the pleasure to interview Dr. Mary Beth Leininger countless times over the years of our association – beginning with her term as AVMA President-Elect and beyond. This particular interview was in my mind long before the #Germinder20 #PowerofPinkHonoree came to be. Dr. Mary Beth Leininger has served her profession of veterinary medicine for fifty-one years – and done it with unmatched dignity and kindness.  As I stated in the announcement release, she represents everything that is right in veterinary medicine. While she demurs about “the first woman thing,” we proudly salute her as paving the way for all of us, knowing there is still so much more work to be done.  Her Power of Pink donation went to a Purdue College of Veterinary Medicine Scholarship Fund. She is the essence of Power of Pink – head down and an attitude of, “I just never thought I couldn’t.” Sounds mighty good to me. — Lea-Ann Germinder  

You’ve had a long, long career in veterinary medicine – more than fifty years. You’ve accomplished everything from becoming a successful small animal practice owner to the first woman president of AVMA to a woman leader in industry and back to volunteer leadership in the AVMA. But, let’s start where it all began. When and how did you decided to become a veterinarian?

Like a lot of veterinarians that I’ve spoken with, I made the decision when I was in elementary school (second grade, actually) and I kept that focus for the rest of my life. Many of us veterinarians actually let a child make that big career decision for us.

Today there are more recent generation veterinarians who have made that career decision later in life: they either found out about the veterinary world during college, or they made a second career choice. Regardless of when a person finally makes the decision that this is the path that they’re going to pursue, most of us stick with it. There is no other option. This is going to be what we’re going to do…. period.

You grew up in Ohio, but you went to Purdue University College of Veterinary Medicine. Was there any special reason you chose Purdue?

Like many other things that happen on life’s journey, happenstance makes an impact on what actually occurs. My father was a fireman in Cleveland, Ohio and we lived in the far suburbs. I was an equine veterinarian’s worst nightmare: a teenage girl with a backyard horse. The veterinarian that took care of my horse Sassy was a really wonderful man whom we all called “Doc” Forthover.

During one of his visits, I mentioned to “Doc” that I wanted to go to veterinary school and he said, “You know, that’s really interesting. But, I don’t think you’ll ever get into Ohio State where I graduated. Purdue just started a veterinary school. It’s brand new, and I bet they’d be willing to take a woman.”

So, I figured, well Doc Forthover ought to know, so I applied to Purdue for my pre-veterinary course work. I was fortunate enough to be chosen to do my veterinary training there. It just happened that I went to Purdue because my veterinarian said that’d be a good place to try.

At that time there weren’t many women at all in veterinary medicine. Why did you think that you were qualified to go into veterinary medicine?

It never occurred to me that I couldn’t. I knew that the training was academically rigorous, but I’d always been a good student. It was also because my family always believed in me. When I was growing up, when I said I wanted to be a veterinarian, my parents said, “Sure. Of course, you’re going to do that.”

Dr. Mary Beth Leininger, Purdue University College of Veterinary Medicine, 1967

How many women were in your veterinary school class?

I’m a 1967 graduate, and at the time, there were hardly ANY women attending any veterinary schools. But, at Purdue, there were actually seven women in my class of 55, which was a huge number.

Since then, I’ve thought about why there was that “bump” in numbers that year, especially since the following years continued to only have one to two women in each class. I believe several shifts had begun that combined to make the changes occur:

  • The work of veterinary practitioners had begun to move from work primarily with food animals in an agriculture setting to companion animals in urban and suburban locales. So, the assumed need that you had to be a big strong man started fading.
  • As the work of veterinarians started to change, college selection committees started to recognize that the women who were applying had the strong academic credentials that were needed to assure success in the tough medical curriculum.
  • A lot more women started to apply to veterinary schools, so the female applicant pool was larger than before.

However, all of the women who applied to veterinary school in that era remember the awkward (and now illegal) questions we all faced: why should we take you when you’re taking the place of a man out there who wants the same spot? Aren’t you just going to get married, and have kids, and drop out?

I don’t feel that the selection committees, which were made up of academics, were being difficult. I think they honestly thought that. And so, it was up to us to prove that they were wrong.

And we did: every single woman in my class continued to work in the profession life-long.

Drs. Mary Beth and Steve Leininger

You and your husband Steve, who is also a veterinarian, owned a successful small animal practice in Michigan for thirty years. What did you enjoy most about that?

We were in Plymouth long enough that we got to see generations of pets with the same family. We’d see parents that had a child, and they had a pet for that child. And then those children grew up and got married, and had pets, they came to us as well. It was really wonderful to be able to watch the evolution of generations of families with their pets.

When a veterinarian is in the same practice for a long time, you get that opportunity. It’s really fulfilling to be able to walk down the street or go into the post office, and see a client, they’ll say “Hi, Dr Mary Beth” and you start talking about their pet.

Most of us practitioners are drawn to veterinary medicine because we love animals, but – in fact – it was the people that made our practice so fulfilling. Extraordinarily loyal clients. Clients that loved us. Clients that trusted us. One of the great things about veterinary practice is that you get to have such meaningful relationships with your clients.

Do you have any funny anecdotes about your time in practice to share?

Shortly after I graduated, the veterinarian I worked for went on vacation and I was left in charge as the solo practitioner. A client called us frantically. She had a couple of domestic ducks on her pond, and a dog had attacked one of these little white ducks.

She brought the duck in, and sure enough this duck had a broken leg. I was holding the duck on the exam table and he looked at me and went, ‘wham!’ with his beak. He broke my glasses and gave me a big nose …. the client & I both gasped, looked at each other, and started to laugh. At that point, I decided maybe avian medicine wasn’t quite up my alley. But, I did fix his leg and after that, I was always careful to stay at a safe beak distance. BTW, the pet owner was a client for many years and we always chuckled about “ducky”.

People also provided some memorable moments; I remember Hunter Broda. Hunter was our patient for more than a decade, and often, when his owner called to make an appointment, she would say, “I don’t want to see Dr. Mary Beth. Hunter’s gotten a little fat, and she’s going to make me put him on a diet. So, let’s make the appointment with Dr. Steve, because he won’t bring it up.”

You and I met when you were President-Elect of the American Veterinary Medical Association. I was presenting the “Pets Need Dental Care Too!” partnership between the AVMA, Hill’s Pet Nutrition, and several veterinary dental specialty organizations. You were very enthusiastic about the public outreach right away. What did you feel was special about that program at the time?

This was one of the AVMA’s early ventures into a commercial partnership for marketing and public relations. I recognized that Hill’s was going to financially underwrite a program that was going to make it easier for pet owners to understand what we were talking about in veterinary care that would improve pet health. There was an immediate call to action. Just like you, the pet owner, need and receive dental care, pets need dental care, too. This is what I loved about being involved in the veterinarian profession and doing things with public relations and marketing. We were telling a story about what my colleagues and I could do for them. And that’s what “Pets Need Dental Care,Too” did. It told the story.

You have done a tremendous amount of media relations, including serving as AVMA spokesperson when you were president. I can’t even count how many interviews we’ve worked together on during that period and when you were at Hill’s. You’ve always been at ease handling a media interview. I’d like to know, why are you so comfortable with media relations? And what is it that you like about media relations and public relations work?

It isn’t second nature to be in front of someone that has a microphone. Veterinarians are great communicators in their exam rooms. But when they think about communicating to “the public,” it’s a bit more daunting. I have always looked upon public relations as telling the story of what veterinarians do for the pet owner. Not just the explaining the care of the pet that we’re providing, but how what we do is helping the pet have a better, and happier, and longer life and how that makes your family more complete and happier.

It wasn’t second nature for me at first either. I took as many short courses on media relations and even engaged a professional coach to help hone my public speaking skills. You have to work at it, but it made sense to me that I needed to do this.

I have always wanted non-veterinarians to understand what my colleagues and I did. When I realized I could tell that story, I knew it was another way I could make a difference and have an impact for people that didn’t understand an issue in veterinary medicine.

Dr. Mary Beth Leininger with her dog Teddy

What would you say about how veterinarians can best communicate with their clients in the age of social media and Dr. Google?

I think veterinarians need to remember that the words we use matter. When you’re talking to clients, we shouldn’t expect them to understand medical jargon: we need to make our explanations as simple as possible.  For example, when we recommend an annual or semi-annual wellness exam (perhaps with lab diagnostics), we should explain that we’re looking for abnormalities that indicate declining health that may NOT be visible and obvious to the pet owner. Our regular evaluations will help us identify those changes early and allow us to start treatment.

If we don’t regularly see the pet and learn from the client how this pet lives, we may miss something. Is the pet outdoors a lot? Is he a show dog or is he boarded regularly? We’ve got to figure out what’s right for that individual pet and family. Nowadays, I think veterinarians are much more aware that we need to personalize medical care for each pet, depending on the life style. Very little is routine and disease outbreaks and changes in exposure to parasites can happen quickly.

I’ll use an example. When Steve and I were in practice, we hardly ever saw ticks as a problem for dogs in Plymouth, Michigan. But, nowadays, because of climate change, ticks have spread all over the country, and tick-borne diseases are very serious. So, number one, we need to keep up with what’s current in medicine and understand how that connects to the needs of our patients.

That’s why we need to be careful how we phrase things: explain things in the simplest way possible, make it easy for clients to understand, and help them agree with our diagnostic and therapeutic recommendations. And today’s clients are going to question our advice. Clients are much more medically sophisticated now than they used to be.

When Steve and I left practice, which was in the late 90s, clients were just starting to print veterinary info from Google and bring it with them when coming for the pet’s exam. I used to personally love it, because that told me that clients really wanted to know as much as possible about the pet’s care. But we wanted people go to the right sources, not just anything on the web. So, we recommended websites by the American Animal Hospital Association, or our Michigan State University College of Veterinary Medicine as their source for veterinary medical information.

Let’s talk about your decision to become involved in organized veterinary medicine, and ultimately campaign for AVMA President. What would you like to say about that time? Any encouraging words for women leaders today, and for the future?

I never dreamed that I would be AVMA President. This was not in my life plan, trust me. No one starts out with that kind of dream. My first connection with veterinary organizations was with the SouthEastern Michigan Veterinary Medical Association, the Detroit area local VMA. I was contacted by a neighboring practitioner in Plymouth who called and said, “Have you ever thought about doing something with our local association? We’ve got an opening on our board of directors. Do you think you might like to do something like that?” Nowadays, people often ask me how we can get more women involved in veterinary organizations, and I say, “Just ask them.”

From my perspective, getting involved with veterinary organizations was not a woman thing. Remember, I started out with parents that said, “She wants to be a veterinarian. Okay, she’s going to be a veterinarian.” It didn’t make any difference whether I was their son or daughter. It didn’t occur to them, and it didn’t occur to me that this couldn’t or wouldn’t happen. So, involvement in a veterinary medical association (or VMA) was a natural progression: “I love this profession and these colleagues, and I want to do something that might make a difference.” And that’s what happened.

Young veterinarians shouldn’t expect to start with a big VMA title. Get on a subcommittee, offer to help with a small project, volunteer to work at the state CE meeting. And when you get started with an organization, actually do what you say you’re going to do, and people will start to recognize that they can trust you.

That’s what happened with me: I started being involved in our local VMA, then my activities continued with the Michigan VMA, and then I was elected to the AVMA PR Council where I served 9 years and became involved with leadership activities, and involved with veterinary companies sponsoring AVMA public outreach and lots of other opportunities.

When I was going off the PR council, people said, “What are you going to do next? You seem to have some real skills here. We want you to do some more. Have you thought about running for office?” I was encouraged by many to seek a new opportunity, and not be afraid to say yes, and the campaign for AVMA President seemed to be a natural next step.

After you were AVMA President, you were named Director of Professional Affairs for Hill’s Pet Nutrition, Inc., a division of Colgate. Germinder + Associates handled the Mark Morris Lifetime Achievement and the Bustad Awards for you, which of course, we enjoyed tremendously. But, I know that your job was much, much broader than that. Can you talk about your favorite aspects of that position, and what you feel were your best achievements?

I’m one of those people whom a very good friend of mine, Dr. Clayton McKay, calls a veterinary junkie. We’re happiest when we’re hanging out with our colleagues. My job with Hill’s Pet Nutrition was a natural progression from my volunteer work as AVMA President and a great fit for me because it kept me in continual contact with colleagues all over the world. Those awards that Hill’s supported recognized some of the giants in our profession; it was an honor to be a part of assuring these colleagues received the recognition they deserved for their amazing work.

But one of my biggest responsibilities was managing the company’s financial support for national conferences like NAVC, AAHA, Western, and AVMA, and meetings of more than a dozen specialty groups like surgeons, dermatologists and ACVIM.

I was given the opportunity to decide what CE tracks and speakers we would underwrite, and also what our company did in the exhibit hall/trade show.

One of the biggest changes our conference team initiated at trade shows (and one that has actually changed how most veterinary companies now build their exhibit hall presence) was to shift our focus from just providing a tchotchke at the booth to developing short, intense learning modules of 15-20 minutes that would educate attendees about our nutritional products and how they would impact pet health. Because asking busy people to devote that block of time was pretty bold, our team decided to “reward” those visitors with something valuable and desired, usually a book that related to the nutrition we were emphasizing. The “reward” concept was a real hit and attendees were drawn to the booth in huge numbers. It didn’t take long for our promotional success to be noticed by our industry competitors and they began to develop their trade show booths in the same way….to educate and reward as a reason to visit. Our team felt we made a change in the culture of trade shows. And that was pretty satisfying.

I’d like to emphasize one thing that has been a part of ALL of my experiences in the veterinary world, and that is the good fortune I have had to be blessed with amazing teams that were part of (and probably the primary reason for) everything I might have accomplished. My conference team at Hill’s is the most obvious example. These folks were creative, innovative, loyal, committed and worked harder to accomplish our goals than any other group of people I have known. They were the STARS of the Hill’s team.

Dr. Mary Beth Leininger

Dr. Mary Beth Leininger at Huntington Gardens

After you left Hill’s, you took on a significant initiative as project manager for the North American Veterinary Medical Education Consortium (NAVMEC). What were the highlights of that project?

NAVMEC was a major initiative of the American Association of Veterinary Medical Colleges (AAVMC) that was focused on looking to improve veterinary education in a broader way than had ever been considered before. I believe it was one of the most important projects that I was ever involved with.

When I retired from Hill’s in 2009, my long-time friend, Dr. Mike Chaddock, who was associate director at the AAVMC, encouraged me to apply for the position of Project Manager for NAVMEC because he felt that my organizational skills and communication talents would be a good fit for overseeing this multi-year project. It was going to involve multiple meetings in several locations, numerous speakers, and stakeholders from across the whole spectrum of the profession.

What was different with NAVMEC from earlier educational reviews was the recognition that educating veterinarians actually involved several parts: what we called the “three-legged stool.” There was education (understanding how students learned), there was testing (to assure graduates were competent to serve the public in private practice), and there was accreditation. Accreditation is the process whereby the AVMA Council on Education (COE) evaluates all US veterinary colleges to verify that the education students are receiving will produce entry-level competent graduate veterinarians. The COE is approved by the U.S. Department of Education to perform this function because it follows the federal regulations that are in place to assure consistency between colleges. College accreditation is important because it allows students to be eligible for federal student loans, and this funding source is utilized by close to 90% of all veterinary students.

NAVMEC invited stakeholders of veterinary education (practitioners, folks that worked for companies that employ veterinarians, people from federal and state governments, and lots of veterinary academics) to come together to talk about veterinary education and what needed to change, or be improved, or be added to help future veterinarians be best prepared to serve society.

Stakeholders (more than 400 attended the three meetings that were held over a 12-month period) didn’t just consider WHAT students needed to learn, but also HOW they were being taught, and IF they were being effectively evaluated on the outcome of that education.

Attendees were looking at education and how to make it better, how to make it more effective, how to make it more efficient, and especially how to make it more cost effective. Cost effectiveness was the “elephant in the room” and was driven by the ever-growing student debt crisis, a crisis resulting in the majority of veterinary college graduates leaving school with loans of $100,000 – $300,000. Stakeholders recognized that this was an unsustainable situation.

The outcome of NAVMEC was a multi-page document entitled the “Roadmap for Veterinary Medical Education in the 21st Century.” Included were suggested changes in education, in accreditation, and in testing that would improve the efficiency and effectiveness in all three processes. Because this was an AAVMC initiative, the primary directives of NAVMEC were provided to AAVMC member institutions (colleges of veterinary medicine in particular).

NAVMEC was begun in 2009 with some suggestions being picked up right away, while others were embraced more slowly, and (somewhat disappointing to me) many of the ideas that the stakeholders created still haven’t (in 2018) found much traction at the colleges. For instance, there’s been very spotty activity on how to make it less expensive for veterinary students to be educated.

Is that how you got involved on the AVMA Council on Education?

The short answer is yes. However, my interest in veterinary education goes way, way back. Even before I was involved in NAVMEC, and probably the reason I was asked to be a part of it, was because I had been active with the veterinary college at Michigan State University during my practice years in Michigan. What I realized during those years is that the young people who are going into veterinary medicine are extraordinary folks who are way beyond smart and committed and I was excited to be a part of their education, even in a small way.

So, that was the beginning, but NAVMEC confirmed to me that if there was going to some major changes in education, the AVMA Council on Education was going to be the driver because the U.S. Department of Education authorizes the COE to both set the standards and measure how well the schools meet those standards. Accreditation of the college is required for students who attend that college to be eligible for federal student loans dollars, and we know the urgency of that!

I recognize that some of the changes that NAVMEC stakeholders recommended in the “Roadmap” will be tough to accomplish (especially as related to decreasing the cost of education), however over and over students (as well as NAVMEC stakeholders) have pleaded that education in financial literacy be offered and/or enhanced so students and graduates are better prepared to manage that massive post-graduation debt.

I am pleased that just this year (BTW, the last year of my term on the Council), the COE has added some modest phrasing to the Student Standard that requires schools to 1) be more specific in identifying the education on financial literacy that is provided, and 2) that information on each CVM website that prospective students can evaluate about costs are much more detailed and easily accessible. Both are important small steps that can be built on in the future.

I was pleased to be a part of the Council. It’s a very, very big job for volunteers and I don’t think many people realize how much time and effort that the members of the COE put in. I personally believe that the COE is one of the most important AVMA councils, because it really defines what the future of the veterinary profession will be.

After you finished your NAVMEC assignment, you were named Vice President at Hartville Pet Insurance. Pet Insurance had really changed from the time you started practicing until you finally retired from Hartville. Can you talk about that experience?

It’s interesting that my last employment was with a pet insurance company because one of the early initiatives that I participated in at the Southeastern Michigan VMA — many decades ago — was to try to start a pet insurance program in conjunction with a small human health organization. It didn’t work because the difference between animal and human health and life expectancy was not understood by the sponsoring company. So here I was, 40 years later, with Hartville Pet Insurance Group. And WOW! what changes have happened over that time!

There are now more than a dozen highly ethical pet health insurance companies in the US, we have a national trade association (North American Pet Health Insurance Association), veterinarians are recognizing the value that recommending pet health insurance has for their clients and the practice bottom line, and more than 2 million dogs and cats in the US are protected by health insurance that helps their owners pay for both routine and/or catastrophic veterinary medical care.

During the six years I was with Hartville, NAPHIA has had collaborative relationships with both AVMA and AAHA, insurance companies have focused on making their plans broader in coverage and easier to understand, and pet owners are more frequently turning to their veterinary practice teams for assistance in insurance recommendations. All this has resulted in increased health for pets and more peace of mind for pet owners when they are faced with their pet’s illness or injury.

It was great to be a part of this era!

Dr. Leininger, I want to thank you on behalf of the profession, on behalf of myself and so many others for your lifetime of service. There is not enough time, there are not enough questions, there is not enough space to fully plumb the importance of what you have accomplished. Is there anything else that you would like to add, and maybe even to tell us about your plans for the future?

First, I think I need to expand on my earlier mention of teams. If I have had any successes, they are the result of the wonderful people I have worked with who believed in what I was trying to achieve. My Hill’s team, NAVMEC stakeholders, the folks at Hartville Pet Health Insurance, the many supporters in the Michigan VMA and other veterinary colleagues who were behind me as I campaigned for the AVMA presidency: each one played a HUGE role in my life.

However, without doubt, it is my wonderful spouse Steve who is ultimately responsible for anything and all I have done. It is because of Steve that I am me. He’s always been there with love and support, no matter how challenging and difficult my goals have been on his life. There is no way I can ever thank Steve enough: I am blessed every day that he stands by my side.

As far as what ‘s next?

I want to continue to have an impact on students and veterinary education, particularly with the Veterinary Debt Initiative that was the result of the “Fix the Debt” Summit in 2016.

I believe that the student debt crisis is the most critical issue of our profession. It will define who will be able to afford to attend veterinary school, it will affect the health and happiness of our colleagues over their lifetimes, it will drive the career opportunities that our graduates will be able to choose.

From my perspective, I believe that each of us can have an impact on the student debt crisis. We certainly should all be contributing to scholarships at our veterinary alma maters. But what about also encouraging those CVM’s to make education more cost effective, or finding ways to mentor your associate practitioners to be better at business and financial management so they’ll achieve their dreams just we have. We all can play a part. All of those actions circle back to each of us, each individual veterinarian helping to make a change.

I will continue to focus my ideas and energy on the student debt issue and hope my veterinary colleagues will, too. I know we can make a difference.

We know you will make a difference, just as you always do. Thank you, Dr. Mary Beth. Thank you.

 

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