AVMA President Dr. John de Jong To Raise the Public Profile of Veterinary Medicine
We are especially honored and pleased to bring you, our Goodnewsforpets community, this special interview from the AVMA conference in Denver with Dr. John de Jong, the incoming AVMA president. Dr. de Jong is committed to raising the #publicprofile of #veterinary medicine. de Jong considers Steve Crane, DVM, ACVS an early mentor. We share both sentiments as we launched Goodnewsforpets.com 18 years ago while Germinder + Associates ran the traditional newsroom at the Western Veterinary under the auspices of Dr. Crane when he served as Executive Director. Likewise we share Dr. de Jong’s view that more stories of the good works of veterinarians and veterinary medicine need to be told. Here’s a bit of Dr. de Jong’s story and the interview…
Every veterinarian we’ve interviewed over the last 18 years has a special story on how they decided to become a veterinarian. Can you share yours?
It was something I aspired to from the time I was about eight or nine years old. Being exposed to and having pets, taking them in to see the veterinarian for care, and just loving all animals, it just drove my childhood passion.
When I got to be a teenager, in the spring of senior year, you could do an externship if you had fulfilled all your other graduation requirements. I decided to work for a local veterinarian and that furthered my desire. Then I spent two summers working with an equine veterinarian in New Jersey. That fueled my desire even more.
I got to college and I played two sports –rugby and lacrosse. I was involved in student senate and fraternity life. Let’s just say my grades were less than optimal. I graduated from Tufts University in 1978 with a bachelor’s degree in International Relations. At the time I wasn’t sure how I could pursue my original dream of becoming a veterinarian.
Ultimately I was accepted to a veterinary school in Mexico, and while I didn’t end up going there, it completely re-inspired me. After a year of trading stocks on my own in New York, I toured and applied to veterinary schools up and down the East Coast.
Jim Himes, who was the associate dean at the University of Florida at the time said, “Look, you seem like a pretty bright kid. But you obviously just took misdirection in college and didn’t focus on your studies. Come down here for a year, if you do well, you can still be a veterinarian.” So, I went to the University of Florida for a year, from June of ’79 to June ’80. After the first quarter, not knowing how well I might or might not do, I applied for an MBA at Colorado State and was accepted to that.
I wrote an essay on feeding third world country populations by good animal production methods based on my work as an undergraduate biopsychology and international relations major. But I did well at the University of Florida, applied to vet school, did not get in, and then applied to medical school and veterinary school both, not knowing where my life might take me. I got into both!
I actually enrolled in and finished about two and a half years of medical school. I ultimately left medical school, sticking with my original dream of being a veterinarian. I graduated in the third class of Tufts Veterinary School, Class of 1985. I was the first undergrad at Tufts to go to Tufts veterinary school. I was also the first International Relations major at Tufts undergrad. It’s been an interesting road, but it’s been incredibly fulfilling.
How did you decide to become a veterinary surgeon?
I’m not a board certified surgeon, but I just had an affinity for surgery for when I was in veterinarian school. As a matter of fact, I take it back to the day I got accepted to Tufts. I called because I was on the waiting list at Tufts. I said, “I know we’re waiting for more contract money to come in from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts government. Is that happening? Where do I stand?” They said, “The letters just went out. We don’t know on the funding. But congratulations, you’ve been accepted.” I put the phone down, and I went straight down the kitchen, took an orange, peeled it off, took a needle and thread and started suturing… and sewing the orange skin back onto the orange.
Upon graduation, my first job was at the Animal Rescue League of Boston. I was the hungry new graduate that just loved anything and everything about surgery. At the time it was primarily a low cost shelter that does spays and neuters. But they didn’t do any other surgeries. I asked the chief veterinarian there and my colleagues, “Why don’t we do other surgeries?” They said, “If you want to do it, start doing it.” The word got around town that there was a hungry, young new graduate that was willing to any kind of surgery for your animal. So, I started on a big Rottweiler. And then I did a femoral head on a Shepard, a husky cross. Back then, when you graduated veterinarian school, you had to do it because there were not as many specialty hospitals. I just couldn’t get enough of it.
Then I started a low-cost spay neuter program in Boston because I was working for another veterinarian. After a few months I said, “Why don’t we start a spay-neuter program here? There are a lot of people at lower income levels coming in here.” Over the next several years I personally spayed and neutered over 14,000 animals.
What have you liked best about being a mobile veterinarian?
There are a lot of things I love about being a mobile veterinarian. I love the personal relationships I develop with the clients. It’s sometimes been advantageous to go into a home and after catching a pet vomiting, and you see a plant that’s got some of the leaves chewed off, you can make an easier diagnosis. Some animals are more relaxed in the home.
Another part of it unfortunately, but fortunately, depending on how you look at it, is home euthanasia. It gives an animal a dignified way out, in the comfort of their own home, with their owners there. There have been a lot of good feelings that I’ve been able to have throughout my career as a house call veterinarian.
Seeing the environment and asking the right questions, sometimes gives you an insight that you may not get in an office visit, in a brick-and-mortar hospital. It’s been very fulfilling.
I also know that I’m able to help the elderly and handicapped, or the busy mom that’s got four kids and two pets and just can’t get them all in the car to go to a hospital. It’s been great.
Your platform as AVMA president is focused on raising veterinary medicine’s profile through all forms of media – including social media platforms. Can you talk about the messages you want to get across?
I think the primary message is that veterinarians touch people’s lives every single day, even if they don’t have a pet, or an animal that they own. The reason for that is because veterinarians are involved with the food that you eat, whether it’s fish or chicken or any kind of poultry or lamb or beef. Food safety, in general, is under the guidance of veterinarians. The products that we use, the medications that we use, are invariably touched by veterinarians in people’s lives in every way.
I want the public to have a better understanding of the breadth of our profession because we’re not just companion animal vets, even though people think of us as dog and cat docs. We’re also wildlife, we’re also zoo, we’re also epidemiology, public health, food animal safety and food animal production research veterinarians and so much more.
I think historically, the AVMA has done a really good job. I’ve been involved with AVMA for a long time, advocating for our legislative issues, primarily through federal government in the last couple of years, helping state veterinarian associations advocate at the state level as well.
But, I don’t think we’ve done as good enough job advocating to the public about everything we do. The human-animal bond is huge. We need to promote the “One Health” concept. Because animals and people, we’re all in this world together and we need to take care of one another. Not just people taking care of animals, but animals take care of people.
I think if we communicate this, that the public will gain a better appreciation for what we do. I would also hope that we could start to reclaim some of the neglected income that veterinarians have never gotten. The reality is we’re a humble profession. We don’t promote ourselves a whole lot. We don’t toot our own horn. But we provide so much to society.
I really feel that it’s time we spoke up a little bit more than we historically have. I would hope that would lead to better lifestyles and incomes for veterinarians and help with the massive student debt that our new graduates are facing. All around it’s a win-win.
Millennials have outpaced boomers as the largest pet owning segment. They by and large receive their information online and through social media. How will you reach this audience?
There are a couple of ways. Number one, the AVMA staff is doing a great job. This convention has put AVMA on a new platform and a new high. I’m hearing great comments all over. But it’s not just the AVMA, I’ve challenged veterinarians throughout the AVMA, and I asked for it in the House of Delegates. I will challenge it in a Journal of the AVMA article that’s coming out. All veterinarians need to reach out to their local newspapers, the local radio stations, get on there. Use your own social media and talk about, not just what you’re doing for your patients and your clients, but the breadth of the profession.
It’s just raising awareness across the board by all veterinarians. It’s going to take a team approach. There are a lot of venues including radio, TV, social media, etc. Veterinary medicine has gotten pretty astute at social media at this point. We’ve got Facebook going on and so much more. It’s a question of communication, good outreach, and hopefully we’ll get to where I’d like to see us go.
I’d love to see us get on a morning show with a calf and say, “This animal, America, is going to lead to either milk or meat or leather or production. The same thing with chickens and all the other species.” We need to educate the public about the breadth of animal care from beginning to end of life and everything that veterinarians provide.
You’ve challenged all veterinarians to join you in your outreach efforts. There aren’t many veterinarians engaged with social media. What is your suggestion for how they or their practices can best get engaged to reach the public?
I’ve learned there’s a renaissance in some ways. At our hospital, we’ve grown ridiculously well over the last five years in part thanks to SEO since we opened. It’s a double edge sword because if you get five star reviews, your practice will grow. But sometimes it only takes one or two negative reviews, and it’s usually because clients say, “I want to come in Thursday at 2:00 p.m. and that’s the only time I come in.”
I had a client, who complained that her animal was going to be finished at a point where the release of the animal was going to be during her yoga class. And how dare we do that. I asked, “Well, do you want me to bring the dog home to your house?” Because I did house calls for them as well, she said, “Yes, I would like that.” I was a little frustrated.
It’s a question of good communications. It always comes down to communications. Clients can be understanding if you’re rationale. If you let them know that you’re listening to them and you hear what they’re saying. Try to let them understand your rationale for why you may or may not be able to do something that they think they need, when they need it.
You are a pro at this. You’ve written a column in the Boston Herald for many years and participated in local talk radio. You know media. What are the top concerns of pet owners that you feel your platform can address in raising the profile of veterinary medicine?
I would say that because of the increasing global communications, preventative care is leading to longer, healthier lives for pets and people alike. People should take advantage of proper preventative care for their animals. Use all the modalities available to them – whether it’s house call veterinary medicine, like I’ve practiced for years, going to hospitals, or proper dental care.
Utilize what’s available and understand the One Health concept; we’re all integrally connected. Animals can lead to people diseases, but the human-animal bond is important because animals play such an important role in the family now. They’re letting people live longer, healthier, safer lives because of the human-animal bond. Take care of your pet, if you do, in turn you end up taking care of yourself.
You’ve practiced in a major metropolitan area and as chief surgeon of a low-cost spay/neuter clinic. You understand a major concern of pet owners is the cost of veterinary care. How do you best explain to pet owners the economic benefit of seeing the veterinarian on a regular basis?
I would say what does your animal mean to you? For millennials, pets are often replacing children in some respects. Would you take care of your child in a certain way? Or would you neglect getting them their vaccines? And doing other things you could to prevent them from coming down with common diseases.
There are also more options with pet insurance now. That’s grown a lot. When clients ask me on a weekly basis, “What do you think of pet insurance?” My answer is like Clint Eastwood’s,”Do you feel lucky?” You know you could either put twenty bucks aside every month or ten bucks a week that should take care of most of the care, in the case of a catastrophic event for your animal. But if you don’t want to do that, then get pet insurance.
Either way, think about the economics. And think realistically. Can you afford a pet? It’s just educating people about the costs of veterinary care and realizing that we’re just trying to take care of animals and trying to do the best we can for them.
What are some of the new developments in veterinary medicine that pet owners are missing by not seeing the veterinarian?
Telehealth is a hot topic right now. It’s going to be able to provide veterinary medicine to rural areas that are underserved. Whether it’s because there’s not enough of an income base for a veterinarian to survive out there or in really rural areas, where you can’t have a veterinarian get to it because there’s a small population.
The other one is dentistry. Dental health has not been properly appreciated over the years and it’s gaining more and more traction. More and more practices are getting dental radiography. In my practice, we bought it a couple years ago, and I can’t begin to tell people how much you use it.
As you listen to veterinary dentists, the mouth is the key to the soul and the rest of the body’s health. That’s a technology that’s great and gaining rapidly. More veterinarians are going to be using this technology. If more people are going to go in to get their mouth radiographed and find dental disease that can lead to other issues the same holds true for animals. That’s got a lot of promise.
On the other side of the equation, within the veterinary profession, student debt still remains a looming issue. Do you feel it is being sufficiently addressed and how?
We’re trying real hard. There was a robust discussion in our House of Delegates last week about it. A recommendation was made to the board to look into it and not just talk the talk, but also walk the walk and to come up with real solutions. We know that the federal government student loans the veterinary students are taking out are at ridiculous interests rates that are double, triple what real interest rates are out there. They’re six, eight, nine; ten percent and you can get low interest loans or personal loans at two percent and three percent. Mortgages are at four percent.
One of the topics that came up was, “Is there a way the veterinary profession can help students or new graduates and fund those loans?” We continue to advocate at the federal level to try to reduce those student loans. My work as part of a consortium with other healthcare professionals and other professions in general is to try to reduce that. But the problem isn’t just veterinary schools; it’s higher education.
I’m a trustee at Tufts University and the tuition and room and board fees for a single year for an undergraduate is $73,400. Which is crippling to most of Americans. And if you have two or three kids, forget about it. What’s happening is, you’ve got the “haves and the have nots.”
If you have a family with a lot of money, they can afford four years of college and a professional education and not have any debt. The people who are on the very bottom of the income level will get a lot of subsidies from the state and from the schools themselves. It’s the middle class that’s getting squeezed and this is a complex problem. But we’re working on it. There are no simple solutions.
The best thing we can do is try and give new graduates tools to properly look at finance, teach them about finance early on in their education years. And help them throughout, to gain a sense of what’s possible and what to avoid.
Is there anything else to add?
Yes, if people have additional questions about the AVMA, you can visit our website at www.avma.org
To connect with the AVMA on social media visit:
To register to receive news update from Goodnewforpets click here.