Dr. Andrew T. Willis
This is the latest in a series of interviews with veterinary specialists connected to the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine (ACVIM) to share insights, knowledge and expertise about career opportunities, growth and development. Today we hear from ACVIM Diplomate Dr. Andrew T. Willis.
Andrew completed his Bachelor of Science degree in Agri-Business at Northwestern Oklahoma State University in Alva, Oklahoma. Andrew earned his doctorate in veterinary medicine degree from Oklahoma State University School of Veterinary Medicine in 2016 and then completed an equine internship at Weatherford Equine Medical Center, PC in Weatherford, Texas the following year. Andrew completed a residency in large animal internal medicine (equine emphasis) at the University of California, Davis in July, 2020; subsequently becoming a Diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine (Large Animal Internal Medicine). His research interest is mostly in infectious diseases. Following completion of the residency training program, Andrew elected to start a career in equine private practice; he is currently employed at Weatherford Equine Medical Center, PC in Weatherford, Texas.
1. What inspired you to become a Board-certified veterinary specialist?
When I was in veterinary school, during my first year, we did “mini-clinic” rotations whereby veterinary students spent one afternoon per week shadowing a fourth-year veterinary student. During my equine internal medicine rotation, there were several horses being hospitalized for cantharidin toxicosis, many of which had synchronous diaphragmatic flutter. The senior clinician (Todd C. Holbrook, DVM, DACVIM (LAIM), DACVSR) on clinics at the time walked me through the pathophysiology of the disease stall-side merely utilizing the tools we had at our disposal – eyes, ears, hands, and brain. I walked away from that experience inspired to provide that level of knowledge and care to each patient I would encounter during my career.
2. Are there any resources or pieces of advice that helped you along the way? Is there any advice you would specifically give to job seekers?
I was abundantly fortunate to have started doing externships early during veterinary school. I made it a point to find private practices that employed internal medicine specialists. As such, I would say the best resource that I have had has been each of the internists with whom I externed, interned, and studied under during veterinary school and my residency training program.
In terms of advice to job seekers, I would say that there is a stark shift following your specialty training. For so many years, through undergraduate, veterinary school, internship, and residency, for many of us, all we have known is to work every waking (and often sleeping) moment of the day. When looking for a more permanent position, learn to evaluate what is important to you personally; it is easy to become overcome with joy at the newest, best equipment, superb facilities, and a great caseload. However, to the flip side, one must remember that this a more permanent position (not just a few years like all your previous positions). Therefore, evaluate what is important.
Perhaps facilities, equipment, and caseload are what you determine, but don’t forget things like interpersonal relationships, camaraderie, vacation time – some of these may be worth taking a cut in pay to feel like it is a position in which you can be happy for the next 30 years.
3. Is there a story or experience that stands out in your mind that reaffirmed your decision to work in specialty veterinary medicine?
While many persons have a desire to pursue specialty training, few complete it for various reasons. I think the experience that reaffirmed my decision to work in specialty veterinary medicine was my internship. Being at a general practitioner level was simply not enough for me. While the internship provided superb training, I personally needed to delve into the details beyond that which the internship allowed me to do. I knew I needed to go to the next level to be where I wanted to be.
4. What is something you wish the general public knew about veterinary specialists?
In the equine industry, I wish they just simply knew that we exist and understood exactly what we actually do, as well as the value that we bring to the table. So many of our equine clients have a belief that just because you do something you are a specialist (Dr. X only does lameness examinations; therefore, he/she must be a lameness specialist); albeit this couldn’t be further from the truth – simply doing something does not by default make you a specialist. Specialists receive extensive training and undergo a level of rigor much beyond that of a standard licensed veterinarian, which brings a whole new level of knowledge and skillset to each case, adding value to the level and detail of care. However, with that added value, there comes an added cost.
5. How is specialty veterinary medicine paving the way for advances in veterinary science?
The majority of peer-reviewed literature will have an author on the paper that is a specialist. This research is eventually what correlates to changes in clinical practice. Specialists are the driving force for advancement in the veterinary sciences.
6. When it comes to increasing diversity in veterinary specialty medicine, what kind of resources or changes would you like to see from the ACVIM and/or similar organizations? To phrase it another way, how can the ACVIM better support its diverse members?
I would like to see the organizations with whom I am most involved (ACVIM, AVMA, AAEP, TEVA) come to a consensus, as well as a subsequent bluntly stated actionable plan, regarding many of the issues facing equine practice as a whole, as well as equine specialty practice – shortage of practitioners, intern shortages, resident shortages, long work hours, low income (especially compared to other veterinary specialties and/or other doctoral programs), obscene client expectations, offsetting debt with a poor return on investment (high cost of education coupled with low income), high percentage of on call and emergency duties, reduction in attrition within the profession, and veterinary employment contract uniformity (what constitutes a fair employment contract; what is fair pay; what is enforceable; what items, such as non-compete, non-solicitation, failure to pay emergency fees, should be no longer allowable within the profession) just to name a few.
7. What does a typical workday look like for you?
We generally start each day with inpatient rounds, which are followed by appointments. Appointments may be referral cases, outpatient cases, emergencies, and (less commonly) routine care. In between appointments, wherever there is availability, we perform inpatient procedures, medical records, billing, and client, trainer, and referring veterinarian communication.
8. What do you consider one of your career successes? How did you achieve it?
I consider each critical case that is discharged and returns to work to be a success and I am thankful for each one of them. However, this is not by my own achievement; it is a result of the superb staff with whom I work. Without the team, nothing is achievable.
9. What do you consider a challenge you’ve faced in your career? How did you overcome it?
I consider horses to be (mostly) a luxury item, rather than a necessity as they were in the past. As such, high concentrations of relatively higher end horses whose owners seek a specialty level of care are, to some degree, found mostly in more affluent areas of the country. As such, the cost of living in these areas tends to be relatively high(er). This increased cost of living coupled with a lower income compared to most professions – particularly with the degree of training specialists have undergone – has been a personal challenge during my career thus far. I wouldn’t necessarily say that I have overcome the challenge itself. Additionally, it is unlikely that this income gap will be bridged to any great degree; however, I have learned to manage this challenge by changing my expectations of what may be achievable, as well as my perspective.
10. What impact has the ACVIM had in shaping your career?
The ACVIM really is my career. I practice as an equine internal medicine specialist. Without the ACVIM I would not have had a residency training program with rigorous construct to complete, as well as the requirements to achieve as set forth by the college. Additionally, the ACVIM is responsible for the same training as all those mentors whom I have already discussed. As such, I am grateful for the college for providing that training to those before me, my generation of specialists, as well as for the continued investment into the posterity of specialists to come.
11. Finally, what is something unique about your career, or career path?
I wouldn’t necessarily say that there is any one thing that is particularly unique about my career. However, I suppose, one of the things that I consider to be of value is to still be involved in the many facets of the internal medicine purview – working in clinical practice; dabbling in research; attending and speaking at conventions; consulting with referring veterinarians and diagnostic companies; teaching students, externs, and interns; and volunteering within the ACVIM, as well as on emergency response teams.
Learn more about ACVIM and its members.
View jobs of interest on the ACVIM Career Center