AAHA Con by the numbers: The power of data, science, and stories

From the keynote address to happy hour trivia and livestreamed storytelling events, AAHA Con 2023 was steeped in stories powered by science and data.

By Kristen Green Seymour

Data, research, and science are powerful—in veterinary medicine and beyond. But stories hold great power too, as Rebecca Heiss, PhD, noted in her AAHA Con keynote speech this September in San Diego.  

Heiss, a stress physiologist and researcher (who happens to be married to a veterinarian), talked about the science of stress, stories, and superpowers, and how the stories we tell ourselves or internalize actually shape our physiology. As a professional keynote speaker and author, she aims to help people transform the fear they feel into fuel they can use—all through the power of storytelling. 

She cited several evidence-based examples, including the infamous “milkshake study,” of how stories impact our physiology, which then influence the actions we take, and ultimately affecting the results we see—and she explained how, by being aware of the influence these stories have on our experiences, we can take steps to control the narrative to get the results we want.  

Oct23-Seymour-AAHA Con wrapup-Heiss-keynote.png

Interesting, right? If you haven’t seen Heiss’ Central Line podcast episode, you can learn more there!

But the keynote wasn’t the only AAHA Con session with a focus on the connection between science and stories. There were several others that touched on these topics in different (but still highly useful) ways. 

(Interested in speaking at AAHA Con 2024? Submit your abstract here!) 

The stories behind the bar charts 

“We were so excited to have our annual convention launch as AAHA Con here in San Diego,” said Jessica Vogelsang, DVM, AAHA’s Chief Medical Officer (and San Diego local). “The whole idea behind a ‘con’ is a celebration of the attendees and their common interest in the main topic, so we thought long and hard about how this event can evolve as a celebration of all who love the world of veterinary medicine.” 

A perfect example of this was the kick-off of Express Yourself, a year-long initiative sponsored by CareCredit and Pets Best designed to give storytellers in the veterinary space an opportunity to share their experiences with the world in the hope of creating a brighter future for the industry. 

“We can’t wait to see how Express Yourself grows over time—and opens the door for all sorts of other programming that centers the attendees in the con experience,” said Vogelsang. 

Jennifer Brocker, CareCredit’s vice president of marketing, agreed. “Words matter,” she said. “Words strung together in a story can literally change the world. I really do believe that.”  

Brocker shared that part of the inspiration for Express Yourself came her experience on the committee for Veterinary Visionaries storytelling event. 

“As we were talking about all of the challenges facing the industry, and all of the data and statistics that I think we’ve all heard more than once, if not 100 times, somebody in the room said, ‘What are the stories behind these bar charts?’” she recalled. “Every single one of these statistics represents an actual living, breathing, struggling, caring human who can bring together this data and their own personal story.” After the success of Veterinary Visionaries, she said, “[W]e really wanted to give all the storytellers out there a platform to continue sharing their stories, because they inspire us, they engage us, they entertain us, they make us think in new ways. Express Yourself is going to be that event.” 

Oct23-Seymour-AAHA Con wrapup-Express Yourself.png

Making the truth come alive

The first hour of the Express Yourself event consisted of a live (and livestreamed) Central Line podcast episode, with host Katie Berlin, DVM, interviewing two Central Line veterans: Josh Vaisman, MAPPCP (PgD), author of Lead to Thrive, and Debbie Boone, BS, CVPM, and author of Hospitality in Healthcare, both of whom spoke about the importance of communication and positive leadership in clinical practice—and hung around to sign books after the interview. 

Oct23-Seymour-AAHA Con wrapup-Express Yourself-Boone-Vaisman.jpg

The livestream episode of Central Line: The AAHA Podcast featuring Debbie Boone, BS, CVPM, and Josh Vaisman, MAPPCP (PgD), will be available on November 7 at aaha.org/podcast.

Following the event, Vaisman said that, going in, he hadn’t known quite what to expect at the launch of the Express Yourself initiative, but he’s now eager to see where the program goes.  

Stories can be the bridge between the mind and the heart, taking what we know to be true and making it come alive inside us with impact,” he said. “I hope Express Yourself grows into a sweeping, intimate portrait of the lives veterinary medicine touches. Feeling the impact of our contributions through the shared lived-experience of real people is just the balm the veterinary soul needs.” 

Representatives from Canine Companions Tim Gackstetter and his son, Jason, brought a fresh perspective of to the mix with their story of the power of the human-animal bond. Canine Companions places between 325 and 375 service dogs annually and has over 2,600 active teams throughout the country—all at no charge to those who receive Canine Companions service dogs, thanks to supporters and volunteer puppy raisers. 

Oct23-Seymour-AAHA Con wrapup-Canine Companions.png

Tim and Jason Gackstetter with their service dog, Oasis

Those are the numbers, but bringing those stats to life was Oasis, Jason’s third service dog, who joined them and demonstrated many of the skills she uses every day to assist Jason, who is in a wheelchair. 

Although Oasis had only graduated in May, Tim explained that she’d gone through significant training, living with a puppy raiser for a year and a half, then spending six months in their center learning advanced commands, before she came to them.  

“The three of us are a team,” he explained. And, while Oasis knows how turn on lights, open doors, and retrieve lost items, Tim insisted that one of the most important ways she helps Jason is by the way she interacts with the world.  

“When you walked through the hotel lobby, how many people smiled at you?” Tim asked. “Because everybody smiled at Oasis and Jason.” 

An *above average* happy hour 

Whether people attended because they were itching to learn more about AAHA Benchmarking+ or because they heard that free drinks were available, the Level Up Your Practice with AAHA Benchmarking sunset session, sponsored by Chewy, was a packed house. And it became a rowdy one, too, once the hosts (associate director of veterinary relations for Chewy Health Katy Nelson, DVM, and veterinary strategy consultant Kim Fish) got the program underway.  

In the real world, AAHA Benchmarking+ will help practices better understand their performance compared to nationwide data in areas like practice sales, client opportunities, and trends in medicine. At AAHA Con, however, a phone-based team trivia game designed to showcase the unique features of AAHA Benchmarking+ and the real-life applications of the platform in practice made the session equal parts competitive and data driven as players answered questions like, “How many times have you gone home with a poo in your pocket?” (The average answer was . . . higher than one might hope.)  

The room positively boomed with laughter at times, and while Kelly O’Brien, director of veterinary relations at Chewy Health, said their goal was really to demystify AAHA Benchmarking+ and demonstrate what a powerful tool it can be, they were truly blown away by how packed the room was and how engaged the crowd quickly became.  

“And we loved getting to talk to the AAHA members that attended after the event,” she said. “One attendee told us that not only is she super excited about the platform, but she also made a bunch of new friends. So much of this platform is based on leveraging community and partnership to improve individual practices and the community overall, so hearing that was really heartwarming.” 

Embarking on a path to better retention  

People in vet med know there’s a staffing shortage in vet med—but the numbers shared at the Stay, Please, research symposium, sponsored by Chewy and presented by AAHA Chief Executive Officer Garth Jordan, really drove the point home: 

  • Approximately 30% of almost 15,000 veterinary professionals (across all roles) surveyed by AAHA said they planned to leave their jobs. 
  • Once they’re gone, they’re gone; among those who had already left their jobs, 90% said they’d never return. 

Oct23-Seymour-AAHA Con wrapup-retention-garth.png

AAHA CEO Garth Jordan

It’s not only those who have been in the profession for years who plan to leave, either, said Jordan, noting that he’d been in contact with a vet student who was already working on an exit strategy. That’s a real problem. 

Fortunately, attrition is a problem with a clear solution. Improving retention is the key to reducing turnover, and Jordan stated that his goal was to help practices everywhere reach 90% retention. According to the survey findings, there are several pivotal retention factors that inspire people to stay put—or, as Jordan put it, that “increase stickiness.”  

Practices experiencing problematic turnover, he said, must start with compensation, because a lack of fair pay was the top driver of attrition (by far), followed by a lack of appreciation for work. So, essentially, people want to be paid fairly and feel like their work is appreciated. Do at least that, Jordan said, and they’ll stop running for the door. From there, you can start addressing the factors that drive retention, like the staff working as a team, the ability to practice modern and/or sound medicine, meaningful work, and flexibility in scheduling and duties. Those are the things that make people want to stay right where they are forever. 

Remember, every data point we see in research like this represents a real person—and every person has a story. Those stories have power, especially when shared. So veterinary professionals, use your voices to move the data in the direction that improves this profession. Your words matter. YOU matter. 

Has this got you thinking of your own data-driven talk for AAHA Con 2024? Submit your abstract! 

Plan for the next AAHA Con


September 12–14, 2024
Gaylord National
201 Waterfront Street
National Harbor, Maryland, 20745 



Disclaimer: The views expressed, and topics discussed, in any NEWStat column or article are intended to inform, educate, or entertain, and do not represent an official position by the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) or its Board of Directors.  



Subscribe to NEWStat