From sports to vet med: Mark Thompson, DVM, MBA, CCRP, and his lifetime of teams
AAHA Board President-Elect Mark Thompson, DVM, MBA, CCRP, grew up on a rural Wisconsin dairy farm, where he participated in 4-H and pursued leadership positions early on, including serving as captain of his senior year curling team, which put him head-to-head with a future Olympian curler.
Curling is “the ultimate team sport,” Thompson told NEWStat, “because no one can do it by themselves.”
This teamwork training has served him well as a veterinary practice owner. Thompson’s interest in science led him to earn his DVM degree from the University of Wisconsin–Madison School of Veterinary Medicine in 1996, and to open his own practice, Country Hills Pet Hospital in Eden, Wisconsin, which was the AAHA-Accredited Practice of the Year in 2018.
He joined the AAHA Board of Directors in 2019, and in 2022–23, he is the president-elect of the board, so he will be president next year. While he’s been an AAHA advocate all the way back to his vet school days, Thompson’s time on the board has deepened his appreciation for all that AAHA can do.
The future he envisions is more diverse, inclusive, member-focused, and most of all, open-minded.
“We’re not a small AVMA,” he told NEWStat. “We are our own separate organization. We can be a little bit more progressive because we're very focused.”
That focus includes AAHA doing a lot more listening and less dictating to members. Thompson said the only way to make sure we’re on the right track is to continuously ask what we can improve while growing with changing technology.
He is a huge fan of the new AAHA Benchmarking tool, which he said will revolutionize the business side of running a practice. And he’s looking forward to the new certificates based on AAHA guidelines, which will allow individual team members to become the champions for topics they’re passionate about.
You might think that a Wisconsin farm kid would be old-fashioned, but Thompson seems energized by the challenges and opportunities for improving the profession. He now brings his competitive edge and team spirit to his practice and to AAHA.
Just how good of a curler was he? He could have gone on to the Olympics himself, if it weren’t for the rigors of veterinary school.
“I think I made the right choice,” he said.
Read on for more on his vision for AAHA’s future and how raising a cow named Suzie Q taught him about the human-animal bond.
NEWStat: You joined the board in 2019. How did you become interested in it?
Mark Thompson: Actually, I started out as a student rep when I was in veterinary school. I've always been very pro AAHA. I got my practice accredited in 2000, and I wanted to do something more with leadership. I did a lot of leadership roles in veterinary school; and then in our local VMA, then our state VMA.
It was kind of a natural step for me. I waited a little bit because we were anticipating applying for the AAHA-Accredited Practice of the Year. We were a finalist in 2016 so I decided to hold off on applying for the board a little longer while we reapplied for the APOY award. Then we won in 2018. I met [AAHA Board past president] Mark McConnell at VMX in Florida and talked to him about joining the board when it was the right time.
NEWStat: You grew up on a Wisconsin dairy farm. Were you always interested in leadership?
MT: I was in 4-H and that kind of thing. In school, I was class vice president for all four years of high school. So I always have been kind of wanting that leadership role. The way I see it is that everything is a step to the next thing, and this is where I am right now.
NEWStat: What's it like behind the scenes on the AAHA Board?
MT: This board is incredible. We’ve got some really high-functioning, very thoughtful people. Our board is very tight. It's a smaller board of just eight people, and It's probably one of the better experiences I've had. I’ve been on a lot of boards of directors but none of them have this kind of focus or this kind of connection with each other.
At times there is some heated debate, but for the most part, we leave that at the door. Once we're done debating and we've each said our piece, then we go on to the next thing. We continue to make sure we're all traveling in the same direction, so to speak. I really like the fact that people can disagree, and it doesn't mean that they hate each other. [In other boards] I've seen where it carries over into lunch hour, into the next session, and the next meal. But it’s not like that for this board. I would recommend the [AAHA] Board of Directors spot for anyone who really wants to find more connections in AAHA. And anyone who can lead us in the right direction. It’s been a very good experience for me.
NEWStat: If everything goes well, what will AAHA look like in 10 years?
MT: I think you're going to see a much more member-focused organization and it's going to be a lot more inclusive than we have been in the past. … We're not a small AVMA. We are our own separate organization. We can be a little bit more progressive because we're very focused. It starts with just opening your mind up and saying, “What can we do?” and “What really are we doing to help our membership?” and “Is there a value-add when we add something new?” That’s how we make sure we’re always headed in the right direction.
What do I see 10 years from now? I see a much more diverse, inclusive board. I see us listening a little bit more than we have in the past, and not dictating. And [I see] even a new structure of accreditation. My idea is that we don't do the same old, same old. I think we need to change with the times, change with the profession, and grow with the profession as new technologies and new things come out.
NEWStat: AAHA has a lot of big strategic plan initiatives in 2023 and beyond. Is there one thing that you are super excited about?
MT: I think AAHA Benchmarking is the biggest thing. It's almost like a mini consulting type of activity that's going to incorporate all the information from the great books and things that AAHA has done in the past and put it together in a more usable form.
When I look at, “What is the most exciting thing for me, as a business owner?” An improved benchmarking tool is really the most exciting. But the guidelines certificates are also really high on the list. Having certificates based on the AAHA guidelines will be huge for associate members. It helps with the question: “How do you implement a guideline?” We've had guidelines for a long time, and a lot of other organizations look at our guidelines and say, “This is the standard we want to adhere to,” but it’s not always that easy to implement. I think certificate programs going with the guidelines are going to be a huge thing for us.
NEWStat: For the first time, AAHA’s going to put out guidelines on mentorship. Why is that important?
MT: A lot of us don't know what mentorship means. Most of the time, in private practice, as an owner, you think you're mentoring someone, but are you really doing what they're expecting? Does the practice owner really think that mentorship is really them doing the new person's job? I think there's a gap between what mentorship is for the student versus what it is for the one who is the mentor. We need to learn how to be mentors, and what better way than to have a guideline for how to implement mentorship in your practice?
NEWStat: At AAHA, we’re calling 2023 “The Year of the Team.” So, one thing I’ve heard about you is that you're a curler.
MT: I am a curler.
NEWStat: Is curling a team sport? Do you have a team of curlers? I don't know anything about curling.
MT: You do have a team—most of the time, it's a four-person team. So, you have one shooter, two people to sweep, and then one person calling the shots and telling the sweepers when to sweep. It's the ultimate team sport because no one can do it by themselves. In fact, you can't play if you have less than three people.
NEWStat: What was the first and/or best team that you've ever been on?
MT: If you want to talk about curling, my best team was my senior year in high school. I had won our school championship a year earlier. We had a 44-team tournament in my senior year, and my team got into the finals. I was our captain, and it came down to the very last shot. I went shot-for-shot with the other captain and I won on the last shot of the game. That other team’s captain ended up being one of the players on the Olympic team. That's kind of my highlight of curling, but that’s not the best team I've been on.
My best team has been my practice team. A special one is my practice team in 2018 when we won the AAHA-Accredited Practice of the Year award. Everyone from the doctors to the staff all bought in to AAHA, along with what we were doing in the community, how our culture fit with AAHA. Everything came together at the right time. That kind of culture doesn’t come with just good leadership: You have to have buy-in from everyone—from the kennel staff to your receptionist, to your technicians and obviously your doctors. That next year [after winning the APOY award], we won our state teamwork award.
My second-best team would probably be in veterinary school. We had a group that was the Canine Companion Animal Club and I was the president of that group a year when we won numerous awards. One of the biggest was the Saturn Teamwork Award.
NEWStat: What are your professional areas of special interest?
MT: I have an MBA, so business is one of my passions. ... We also have a pretty extensive physical therapy department at our practice, and I have a certification in canine physical therapy.
NEWStat: Do you see both cats and dogs for rehab there?
MT: Not too many cats get on the underwater treadmill, but we had one in there once.
NEWStat: What’s an innovation that could change things significantly in these areas?
MT: Regenerative medicine is really changing physical therapy. The exciting part of these monoclonal antibody therapies that are coming out for pain management is that we're really using the body to heal itself in multiple different ways. Regenerative medicine is by far going to replace a lot of the things that we use currently, like pharmacy and diets and that kind of thing
Regenerative medicine is not a difficult thing for a general practitioner to do. You don't have to get a specialty, and it makes a really big difference. Even just doing platelet-rich plasma. You can learn how to do it. It's a low cost of entry and it gives you multiple touch points with that person. You can help them with their pet without having to just rely on pharmacy only to improve the life of these animals.
As far as the business side of practice: I think the AAHA Benchmarking tool is going to change a lot of the benchmarking out there. I call it benchmarking with an asterisk. It’s benchmarking with an idea of what to do with the information. A lot of new graduates that I've talked to don't want to own a practice because they haven't had one bit of training for it. AAHA Benchmarking is just trying to make it easier for them to manage their practice, to understand what it is, instead of being alone and trying to learn it all by themselves. AAHA gives us that team mentality to help each other. And to help new graduates who want to be practice owners.
NEWStat: Who was the first animal you ever loved?
MT: It was a cow. So, I grew up on a dairy farm. When I was about 12 years old, I won a contest and got a valuable heifer that I was going to raise for my 4-H project. She went everywhere. I took her to the State Fair. I took her to every show there was in the state, and she won. I had to sell her when we moved away from the farm, but she ended up on the cover of Hoard's Dairyman [magazine]. She was an award-winning cow.
NEWStat: It sounds like a movie. Did she have a name?
MT: Yeah, she had a really long registered name, but her unofficial name was Suzie Q. I get a little emotional talking about Suzie for a number of reasons. I put a lot of time and attention into raising her, but she was my first real experience with the human-animal bond. It was a time in my life that my family was really struggling with the divorce of my parents and the sale of our family farm. It is more powerful than I can articulate. That animal was more than a project for me and helped me through some tough times. It may be a big reason why I am in this field today.
My pride and joy now is my Havanese dog, Bentley. He is the sweetest dog in the world.
Learn more about the AAHA Board of Directors in this recent interview with Garth Jordan, MBA, CSM, CSPO.
Meet AAHA Board President Margot Vahrenwald, DVM, in this NEWStat article.
Meet new 2022-23 AAHA Board director Lynn Happel, DVM, in this NEWStat article.
Photos courtesy of Mark Thompson.