Retirement reflections: How to strengthen the osteopathic family
By now, many of you have heard that I will be retiring this summer after 16 years as AOA executive director. This is a bittersweet moment in my career and in my life. Leaving the AOA for the last time in July will be the hardest commute I’ve ever had to make, for I have honestly and sincerely enjoyed every moment I have spent in this office, both the good and the bad. Yet I know that many bright days of family—including more precious moments with my six granddaughters—will be waiting for me at home.
What makes this transition the most difficult for me is that I truly feel like I have two families—my wife, children, grandchildren and extended family are one, and the osteopathic medical profession is the other. As I contemplate my retirement, the AOA family is the first thing on my mind. Carrying out our vision to make the AOA the professional home for all DOs will be my clarion call.
When I began my work as AOA executive director in 1997, a past AOA leader asked me point-blank, “What is your biggest goal for the AOA?” It’s a tough question, with many possible answers. Mine at the time was to reach a 100% market share—in other words, for every DO to be a member of the AOA. I still count that as a major goal and continue to support the inclusion of “family” as one of the AOA’s six strategic pathways.
Our family has grown remarkably since I joined the AOA. There are now more than 100,000 DOs and osteopathic medical students, and AOA membership is nearing 46,000, a 54.6% market share. And while we may not have achieved my goal, your AOA staff is pledged to serve all DOs, members or not, for no other organization will.
Yet all is not perfect. Despite our growing numbers, many osteopathic organizations affiliated with the AOA are struggling. Consolidation and changes in the pharmaceutical industry continue to adversely impact our affiliates’ programs. Another state osteopathic medical association was designated as inactive in 2012 bringing the total to four. Some of our divisional and specialty affiliates experienced a financial loss, a decrease in membership or both in 2011-12, and several are considered to be at high or moderate risk based on key indicators.
When I took office, one of my first initiatives was to create a “Marshall Plan”—a plan to provide financial assistance to help societies undertake multiyear projects to strengthen themselves. This plan was largely successful and continues as part of our Healthy and Viable Affiliate Operations Program. Yet despite the pledge of last year’s “Principles of Affiliation—Document of Collaboration” signed by the AOA and our affiliates, our state and specialty societies need help. Is it time for Marshall II?
As our family has grown, so too have the number of meetings and events to support all DOs and help them earn their continuing medical education credit. As AOA executive director, I travel across the country—140 trips in 2012 alone—to visit osteopathic medical societies and college campuses, meet with AOA family members, and support their great events. This helps me learn more about issues affecting DOs at the local level, as well as reinforce DOs’ connection with the AOA as their main membership organization.
Yet all that travel also reinforces how large our country is and how widespread and diverse our DOs and students are. It is difficult for a small state association to provide valuable services that meet the needs of thousands of DOs in the state—and even harder to recruit hard-working young DOs to get involved. The same goes for osteopathic specialty societies: How can they provide quality CME programs to all of their members, who are scattered across the country and have a hard time breaking away for weekend meetings? Perhaps it is time for individual state and specialty organizations to consider a new relationship with the AOA or, short of that, with each other. A more regionalized, networked approach that uses new technology can weave for us a profession of whole cloth.
Regional Osteopathic Medical Education, or ROME, conferences have proven to be highly popular and provide economic boosts to participating state organizations. Leadership training could be a new task for the Circle of Leaders, which includes society presidents and other governing board members. An organizational mentorship program like the one once established between the Oklahoma and Arkansas associations could be expanded to ensure that every state can remain active or join a regional group. These are just a few ideas to ponder when I’m gone.
Throughout my tenure at the AOA, there has been one constant—our great AOA staff. These 160 people are some of my most treasured family members. When I was hired 16 years ago, the AOA had one-third of its staff positions vacant. I spent two years getting us back to full capacity to ensure that our staff was always available to help you and to achieve the broad goals laid out in our strategic plans.
This was challenged in 2007 when the great recession forced us into a hiring freeze, limiting what services we could provide and threatening our daily operations. The hiring freeze continues, but our budgets are balanced and our financial resources have achieved a record surplus. A new reserve policy, like a new executive director, will soon be in place, thanks to our succession plan. Let us hope that the new strategic plan also in the works will foster an even closer relationship within the osteopathic family so that we can begin to grow again.
Should the profession or my successor take any of the approaches I’ve proposed, a commitment to unity will be key in making those efforts successful. Thanks to the ongoing success of our Unity Campaigns, I believe the spirit of unity will guide the AOA family through many challenges ahead—the proposed unification of GME program accreditation between the AOA and the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education, osteopathic continuous certification, the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, and so many more that we can’t quite see beyond the curve in the road. When he took office last July, AOA President Ray E. Stowers, DO, promised that the AOA will always be here for the AOA family. That inalienable truth will keep the AOA ahead of the curve.
As I prepare to retire (and face my last “retirement columns”), I will not be writing about myself but rather, as in this column, our legacy of distinctiveness as a profession, where the AOA is today within the house of medicine, and what each and every DO can achieve in his or her career. As Winston Churchill said in his “finest hour” speech, “Now is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is perhaps the end of the beginning.” We can DO it!