Former VHMA President Sandra Brown Wiltshire, AAS, BS, MLT, LVT, CVPM, recently spent time with VHMA staff and shared her insights into VHMA and her recollections of her term as president.
Sandra, a licensed veterinary technician is currently Assistant Professor in the Veterinary Technology Program at State University of New York Ulster County Community College Campus.
Question: You have a long history in the industry and have been a VHMA member for 28 years. What are the most significant changes you have seen in veterinary practice management?
Sandra Brown Wiltshire (SBW): When I joined VHMA 28 years ago, it was a different world. Practices were smaller---a 4-6 veterinarian practice was considered large! In the early 1990s, most practices had not yet fully harnessed the power of technology to increase patient communication, improve diagnostic potential, and integrate business functionality. And, in many cases, practices were still being managed by the owner/veterinarian and the veterinarian’s spouse. Often, neither had practice management training.
Today’s veterinary practice environment has changed radically. Managers are often employed in large practices due to the trend toward veterinary corporatization. The practice manager profession has come a long way---managers lead the practice, are well-trained, and are given a high level of responsibility. Finally, growing recognition of the benefits of the human-animal bond has increased the value of veterinary services and how the client perceives the office experience. These developments have increased the demand for highly qualified, competent managers who are well-equipped to address of business, technological, and human resource issues.
What drew you to this association?
SBW: Mark Opperman and Owen McCafferty! I met Owen when the practice where I was employed consulted with his firm. I heard Mark speak at a conference. Both extolled the benefits of VHMA for anyone who was managing---or aspired to manage---a veterinary practice. I was sold!
As a licensed veterinary technician, I was serious about my work and had the training to professionally succeed. However, more and more, I was tasked with performing management duties. As I took on these responsibilities, I was searching for benchmarks and other measures to evaluate performance. I wanted to be able to point to these standards as validation that I knew what I was doing. Therefore, I wanted to earn my CVPM since the credential would confirm my qualifications and provide ongoing guidance, resources, and support to ensure my professional knowledge and skills remained current.
There are many credentials available. Why the CVPM?
SBW: The CVPM board made the decision to seek and was awarded NCCA accreditation, which spoke volumes. It verified that the CVPM exam was well-written, constructed, fair, and true to the objectives of testing.
The initial CVPM exam was held in 1992, I joined VHMA in 1993 and passed the exam on my first try in 1994. I was so proud to add this feather to my cap!
Over time, I became more involved with VHMA, serving as an area director, board officer, and president (2001-2003). Once I left the VHMA Board, I moved to the CVPM Board and served as secretary, treasurer, and co-chair and then chair.
During your term as president, what were the big issues the association faced?
SBW: When I assumed office, VHMA had just switched management firms and within a few years welcomed Christine Shupe on board. Three issues were priorities:
- The association lacked sufficient funds to offer the broad range of programs that would sustain membership and attract new members. We were consumed with identifying ways to enhance the member experience, which would increase the value of joining.
- VHMA needed to continue to recruit new members and attract them to VHMA meetings and conferences.
- We were committed to elevating VHMA and broaden awareness of the association by promoting its mission and the skills set that VHMA members bring to the practice.
I believe VHMA continues to focus on these issues despite its growth in membership and reputation. Although the association has the financial resources to offer quality programs and education, for any organization to survive and thrive, these resources must constantly be revised and supplemented to ensure that they are meeting the needs of members and addressing emerging issues faced by the veterinary profession and practice managers.
What was the strategy for addressing these issues?
SBW: It was a labor of love on behalf of our directors and members who spent countless hours soliciting our members to speak on topics that would interest managers. They also called and met with veterinary practice owners and professional publication representatives to discuss the association and to promote the value of VHMA.
This was a grassroots effort that helped grow the association due to the professionalism and commitment of its members. As Mark and Owen pointed out previously in their interviews, this had to be accomplished through telephone calls, snail mail, and faxes. Today’s volunteers face different challenges, but they embody the same commitment, professionalism, and can-do spirit that has defined VHMA members through the years.
Please describe the VHMA culture.
SBW: VHMA is made up of a great group of enthusiastic people! Unlike some other associations where members are very proprietary and reluctant to share information, VHMA members are committed to sharing what they know so that others can learn and mature as managers.
VHMA is also characterized by welcoming and caring members. New members can expect to be swept into the fold and enjoy the strong feeling of collegiality that pervades the association. Networking is one of the association’s greatest benefits.
I believe our members have always understood that the association is only as strong as its weakest link, therefore, we work to raise all members to a high level of skill. We want to see everyone succeed! When our members succeed, the VHMA succeeds!
What would you most like practice managers to know about VHMA?
SBW: VHMA is for all managers---whether you are new to the field or have been practicing for decades. New members will benefit from the mentor program and will find support and guidance. Continuing education and resources are geared to managers at all points in their careers. Those with little experience, as well as those with decades of experience, will find valuable learning opportunities at conferences, meetings, and online.
Is there a secret to VHMA’s success?
SBW: I cannot emphasize enough how much personal time our members have and continue to devote to the success of the VHMA. The efforts of VHMA’s early organizers are a testament to their commitment to creating an association that would help practice managers, elevate the profession, and ensure that those employed as practice managers adhered to a knowledge base and code of ethics that was exemplary. This is our founders’ legacy that has been embraced by subsequent leaders and members.
How has being involved with VHMA shaped you?
SBW: I am a better manager, public presenter, advocate, and teacher because of the association. Being active in VHMA has pushed me to do things that are outside my comfort zone, which has given me the confidence to try and accomplish more.
What do you see as VHMA’s current challenges?
SBW: Two big ones come to mind. The first is the speed at which veterinary medicine is evolving. VHMA has an excellent track record of identifying imminent changes and providing the tools and resources to respond and address these changes. VHMA has been a harbinger of change, a role that I believe it is well prepared to continue in.
The other big one is Covid-19. While its onset was sudden and significant, the responses from practices and VHMA were quick and effective. I was impressed to see the discussion on MemberConnect, the resources on the VHMA website, and the correspondences from the board. Covid-19 came out of nowhere but, in reality, this is probably not be the last time we will see a world altering event. We must be aware of and prepared for the next challenge.
What is your favorite VHMA memory?
SBW: The camaraderie among members has always been one of VHMA’s greatest strengths. This memory illustrates just how close we were as a group and how important it was for us to get together.
At a conference in Halifax, the organizers reserved an evening at a dinner theater. VHMA bought out the venue and members were treated to a comedic performance by actors who spoofed popular television shows like Gilligan’s Island and All in the Family. The actors were also the servers. They took our orders, performed, and served our meal.
The evening was so much fun that the next time we met in Halifax, because of numerous requests, we made sure that a night at the dinner theatre with colleagues was on the agenda!
Rapid fire round: VHMA asked, Sandra responded.
If not for VHMA: I would not have reached the level that I have professionally.
Best annual meeting locations: Halifax, Nova Scotia and Nashville, TN, and Sanibel Island, FL
Members said, “it won’t work” is not a phrase that I have heard from my VHMA colleagues. We are an optimistic bunch but there are occasions where we may disagree---sometimes strongly and loudly---but at the core, we agree on what is best for the association. We may differ on how long it will take to accomplish it and how it should be executed, but we are united in our desire to work together to get it done.
The best thing about VHMA is making lifelong friends and professional growth.