Reflecting on 150 Years of Progress & More to Come

July 19, 2013

Dr. Mary Beth Leininger
1996 AVMA President
Vice President, Veterinary Relations
ASPCA Pet Health Insurance

Dr. Mary Beth Leininger has the distinction of being the first woman elected president of the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA). Goodnewsforpets.com publisher Lea-Ann Germinder met her while Dr. Leininger served as chair of the AVMA Public Relations Council, and was simultaneously running a small animal practice with her husband in Michigan. A few years later, Dr. Leininger served as national spokesperson for “National Veterinary Month” during her tenure as AVMA president. Germinder’s marketing communications agency, Germinder & Associates, Inc., again served Dr. Leininger while she was Director of Professional Affairs for Hill’s Pet Nutrition, Inc. We first interviewed Dr. Leininger as she completed the first phase of planning as project manager for the North American Veterinary Medical Education Consortium (NAVMEC). Fast forward to 2013 and we thought it was time to visit again with Dr. Leininger, now Vice President, Veterinary Relations for ASPCA Pet Health Insurance as she celebrates the 150th anniversary of the AVMA with her veterinary colleagues.

Dr. Leininger, at the time you became a veterinarian, there weren’t many women in the profession. What made you decide to become a veterinarian?

Like many of my colleagues I “let a child” define my future. I was seven years old when I realized veterinary medicine was the path I wanted and nothing was going to deter me.

What is it about veterinary medicine that sets it apart from the other healing professions?

The year I served as AVMA president, and during the several years I spent in preparation for the election, my eyes were really opened to the impact my colleagues in all career paths make in this world. The veterinary profession contributes to the well-being of people because it provides a balance to life –the balance between human beings and the natural world — the intricately woven balance that is so needed in the isolating and increasingly violent society in which we live. Veterinary medicine is neither the stepchild of human medicine nor simply the offspring of agriculture. It is a significant profession with deep roots because the animal-human connection is a tightly woven seam bound by the centuries.

What are the contributions veterinary medicine has made to health that you feel might be significant for the public to be aware of?

I could cite page after page of the contributions to health, including human health, that have been made by members of our profession. Veterinarians were pioneers of early research on such revolutionary human procedures as organ transplants, hip replacements, even internal fixation repair of fractures. And we are the profession whose researchers gave medicine its earliest clues to understanding the AIDS virus.

What are some of the other contributions that veterinarians make today that the average person might not know about?

Veterinarians continue to be on the cutting edge of human, animal and environmental health. We are the profession that understands and is involved in all the steps in the animal food chain, making sure that animal-based food that reaches our tables is wholesome and safe. We are the profession whose knowledge of zoonosis and epidemiology helps prevent the spread of disease, whether in human or animal populations " an example being the discovery of the West Nile Virus by a veterinarian. And finally, we are the profession that treats and protects the animals with which we share our planet by speaking for their needs and seeing that they are treated humanely.

What made you decide to run for AVMA president?

As with so many before me, I had broad experience in local and state associations, and I also served a term on an AVMA Council. That experience, and with encouragement from many colleagues in Michigan and other VMAs in the 9 States area (a regional networking organization of officers from Executive Board Districts IV, V, and VI), made me consider that there might be an additional way that I could contribute to our profession. Over several years, many people suggested that I had demonstrated significant leadership and communications competencies that could be well placed in the AVMA hierarchy. I felt I could not only make a difference during my term of office, but also show how personally worthwhile volunteerism could be. If we define an association in its most basic way, it is a group of individuals who voluntarily come together to solve common problems, meet common needs, accomplish common goals — the tasks that they cannot achieve alone. As president of the AVMA, you have an opportunity to represent the most influential association of the veterinary profession. It’s the only organization that cuts across all geographic boundaries, all species specialties, all career paths.

How did you go about determining what you wanted to focus on during your term?

Interesting that you should ask this. In the early to mid ’90s, when I was finishing my nine years on the AVMA Council of Public Relations and starting to consider if I should seek the election, I decided if I was going to be an effective president, I had to know as much as possible about the entire scope of our profession. With the encouragement of many colleagues, I started to spend days with veterinarians who did lots of different things " state regulatory work, equine, bovine and swine practice, lab animal medicine, academia, and public health work –all careers beyond what I knew – suburban small animal practice. As I enjoyed experiencing the diversity of our profession, I realized that many of the veterinarians I was visiting had consistent concerns about AVMA and our profession that weren’t being addressed at the highest level. When I was elected president-elect, I decided I would make a concerted effort to do an “environmental scan” of our profession and identify these specific issues and learn the ideas our members had about resolving them. As president-elect, I attended scores of state, regional and specialty VMA meetings and at most of them I was allowed to hold roundtable discussions with members. At these sixty-six meetings more than 1400 colleagues shared their satisfaction, their concerns and their ideas. From these roundtables, I identified six consistent issues that members wanted AVMA to pay more attention to delivering for them: Public Visibility, Member Communication, Student Debt, Member Involvement, Career Development, and Member Services.

Are those still priorities today?

Now, almost twenty years later, almost every single issue that those 1400 members identified is currently at the top of AVMA’s agenda. For example:

  1. Public Visibility. The Partnership for Health Pets is planning to spend $5.5 million over the next year to communicate the value of veterinary care to the public.
  2. Member Involvement. There is currently a strong impetus to change the AVMA governance structure to allow individual members to have more input.
  3. Student Debt. It’s one of the hottest topics in our profession.

You have been such an inspiration to so many women in veterinary medicine. What words of advice do you have for young women now entering the veterinary profession?

For my young colleagues " both men and women — I stress not be afraid to say yes to any unexpected opportunity that comes your way: it may turn out to be very fulfilling. Ultimately your success will be determined by how well you work with people and gain their trust, so networking is critical. As a veterinarian, you have so many doors in front of you. For example during my decade as Director of Professional Affairs at Hill’s Pet Nutrition, I worked with dozens of national educational conferences, selected speakers and enhanced continuing education opportunities and orchestrated a trade show presence for our company. These are things I never dreamed I would be doing when I was in veterinary school, but my Hill’s years turned out to be extremely satisfying. After I left Hill’s, I had the opportunity to serve as project manager for the North American Veterinary Medical Education Consortium (NAVMEC), an initiative to improve veterinary education.

One issue that keeps arising is the challenge for women veterinarians to have a good work/life balance. How can that be achieved and still have them be successful in their careers?

I’m afraid that’s one question I don’t have an easy answer for. (laughter) My involvement with AVMA and my subsequent positions (Hill’s, NAVMEC, ASPCA Pet Health Insurance) were all made possible by the extraordinary support of a patient and tolerant spouse who “took up the slack” at our practice and in our lives.

You’ve had so many facets to your career in veterinary medicine " ownership of a small animal practice, AVMA leadership, corporate leadership, NAVMEC — has there been a common thread to all of these phases of your career?

Knowing that communication is listening more than speaking and encouraging others to have their say. Networking and being open to new ideas since no one person can possibly have all the answers.

Where do you see yourself in veterinary medicine today?

My hope is to continue to try making a difference for our profession and positively impact the public’s perception of veterinary medicine. When I retired from Hill’s one of my team members said, ” She’s not done yet.” It’s a challenging time in veterinary medicine but a time of great significance " how could I not be involved?

What would you like veterinary medicine to be known for in the next 150 years?

I would want us to continue to be the humane, caring scientists that we are currently, who have expanded their global roles in keeping people, animals, and the environment healthy.

To reach Dr. Leininger directly, contact her at DrMaryBeth@hartvillegroup.com.

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