An Interview with a Veterinary Innovator- Dr. Justine Lee

by Guest Blogger on May 18, 2014

justine leeDr. Justine Lee is the CEO and founder of VetGirl, LLC, a subscription-based podcast and webinar service offering veterinary continuing education (CE). Previously, she was on faculty at the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine (2003-2008) and the Associate Director of Veterinary Services of an animal poison control center (2009-2013). Dr. Lee graduated veterinary school from Cornell University, and completed her internship at Angell. In addition, Dr. Lee completed an emergency fellowship and residency at University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Lee is a Diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Emergency Critical Care (DACVECC) and a Diplomate of the American Board of Toxicology (DABT).

Dr. Lee has been published in numerous veterinary journals, including the JAVMA, JVIM, JVECC, and JAAHA. She is one of the editors and authors of The Five Minute Veterinary Consult Clinical Companion: Small Animal Toxicology textbook (Wiley, 2010) and the Veterinary Clinics of North America Small Animal: Emergency Medicine textbook (Elsevier, 2013). Dr. Lee has also published several veterinary book chapters, and has been aired on radio and television to promote preventative medicine, animal health, and the overall well being of pets. Dr. Lee is the author of two humorous pet reference books entitled It’s a Dog’s Life… but It’s Your Carpet and It’s a Cat’s World… You Just Live In It.  She currently is a contributing author and blogger for Pet Health Network. More information can be found at www.drjustinelee and (see more info on Dr. Lee below interview)

Rebecca: Tell me a little bit about yourself. How did you end up in veterinary medicine, and how did you get where you are now?

Justine: It was a lifelong dream. I’ve wanted to be a veterinarian since I was seven. I’m actually really fortunate I had that career path, because I honestly don’t know what I would do otherwise. I guess it’s just something I’ve always been passionate about.

I’m most appreciative of my parents, because they’ve always been completely supportive of me becoming a veterinarian. I’m a first-generation Chinese-American, and Chinese parents stereotypically want you to go to med school. I’m glad my parents have always fostered my passion for veterinary medicine!

Rebecca: Right.

Justine: I did my undergrad at Virginia Tech, which had a strong animal science program. Then I went to vet school at Cornell. There, I was in the first class to go through a 100% problem-based learning curriculum, and actually really struggled with it!

Rebecca: Yes, I remember that. We had one class at NCSU that was problem based. It was a disaster for me, too!

Justine: Although I struggled through my first three years of vet school (where I got Cs), I was able to shine where my passion was – in clinics! After all, C stands for “clinical”! After a year of As in clinics, I finally upped my GPA to a B- (3.0). Thankfully, we’re taught in vet school that C equals DVM. I didn’t think I was going to get an internship because I was a C student. However, because of my strong clinical year, I obtained an internship at Angell in Boston. After my internship, I went to Penn, where I did my emergency critical care fellowship and residency.

Justine: When I finished my residency, I took a position at University of Minnesota. I was on faculty there for five years, and that’s what led me to Minnesota.

Ultimately, I became a bit burnt out because I had been doing ER for about 17 years. I developed compassion fatigue. I always promised myself when I became fried or experienced burnout, I would take time off.

I ended up taking three months off just to mentally regroup, travel, and enjoy life. After my break I went into veterinary industry. For the last five years, I was the Associate Director at an animal poison control based out of Minneapolis.

Working in veterinary industry was really interesting because it taught me how incredible our veterinary field is. We have so much diversity and opportunity. You can be a general practitioner or a specialist. You can go into industry or teach. You can also go into public health and research.

I never would have thought that I’d go into veterinary industry, as I’m such a clinician at heart. It ended up being a unique position, where I was able to build on leadership skills and different skill sets (marketing, customer service, social media, etc.). This past September, I left that industry job so I could spend more time focusing on my work-life balance, and to build VetGirl.

Rebecca: That had to be a scary leap, huh?

Justine: It was, but I basically had organized multiple part-time positions. Currently, I have four to five part-time jobs that all combine together and become one full-time job (well, slightly more than that).

Rebecca: The other advantage of veterinary medicine is having the flexibility to practice that way. How many physicians can work part-time or piece together several part-time jobs into a full-time job? That’s typically unheard of in human medicine, and it offers veterinarians so much variety in our profession.

Justine: Exactly. Basically, I work at an emergency critical care specialty clinic in the Twin Cities one day a week. One to two days a week, I do scientific writing or blogging for Pet Health Network through IDA. I also spend a few days a week working on VetGirl and/or lecturing, both nationally and internationally. This is my true passion, as I love to deliver clinically relevant continuing education that’s practical. I love being able to give veterinary professionals one or two take-away points from my lectures to help improve their quality of care to their patients.

That’s one of the reasons why I ended up founding VetGirl – to be able to provide continuing education with smart technology – from a smart phone or tablet!

Rebecca: You speak at a lot of the International Veterinary Seminars (IVS) don’t you?

Justine: Yes, I’ve been with IVS for the last eight years, and I absolutely love the ability to travel to a fun location, lecture/learn, and meet great people!

Rebecca: Yeah, that’s a nice gig, and their meetings are in great places! You may have already alluded to this, but what do you love most about veterinary medicine?

Justine: Besides the animal interaction, I love being able to save lives and help promote the human-animal bond. For me, one of my passions is to be able to communicate appropriately to a pet owner. This hit home when my own pit bull was diagnosed with a brain tumor. He was my first dog ever (as an adult), and I had gone through a lot of “stuff” in life with him. After being on the other side of the table, it really changed how I communicate with pet owners.

Rebecca: Do you have concerns about where we’re going – where we’re headed as a profession right now?

Justine: I wrote a blog about this exact topic about a year ago through Exceptional Veterinarian Team (now Veterinary Team Brief). There are several things I’m worried about. I love our profession, but I think two of the main things we need to worry about are 1) the increase in an all-female field, and 2) the growing veterinary student debt.

While I’m all for women in leadership (as I’m a huge advocate of Sheryl Sandberg and Lean In), I do think there are some concerns about becoming an all-female profession. We don’t want the risk of becoming a pink-collar profession, such as seen in the nursing field.

I think it’s really important for us to stay firm in how we practice as scientists, promoting One Health. Not only are we promoting the human-animal bond, but we’re also promoting one health between species. In other words, we’re promoting health and awareness of zoonotic diseases, and animals as markers for human disease. We need to make sure we continue to promote research and a higher level of science.

Another concern is that we, as females, are generally poor negotiators for ourselves.

Rebecca: I’m horrible.

Justine: As a result, we end up seeing a lower salary. When I finished my internship, I was offered the same position as my male intern-mate at $10,000 less, and this was back in 1998.

Rebecca: Wow.

Justine: It still happens. As it becomes a female-dominant field, I think we have to be the best advocate for ourselves in veterinary medicine. There are some countries (like Norway) that are flooded with an over-abundance of female veterinarians. They may not be negotiating well. And as a result of having a surplus of veterinarians, many are graduating without paid jobs.

We need to:
(a) Advocate for ourselves well,
(b) Negotiate well, and
(c) Do everything we can to make sure that AVMA or our clinical governing bodies look out for us.

In other words, we need to make sure our profession/market isn’t flooded so there are still jobs available for everyone graduating. One of my biggest frustrations with veterinarian schools right now is that they continue to increase their class size (for tuition dollars).

Rebecca: Absolutely.

Justine: I really think veterinarians need to be more aggressive reaching out to their AVMA delegates so they can have a louder voice about this surplus of veterinarians. Five years from now, it’ll be too late. We must fix this problem now!

Rebecca: No doubt. It’s pretty scary. Like you, I always wanted to be a veterinarian. I never want to be in a situation, where if somebody says to me, “I want to do what you want to do”, and I’m going to have to say, “No, don’t do it.”

I have changed my tune a little bit. Now I say, “If you have to go into debt to do it, I’m not sure I’d recommend it. However, if you can do it without debt, then absolutely. You’d be golden.”

Justine: I think that’s a big concern, especially with more females going into the field. If females focus and prioritize on family, then they don’t start their own small business or buy clinics. We create problems where we’re no longer becoming small business owners (I’m really a huge advocate of women becoming small business leaders). Women need to be more aggressive about “leaning in”, to prevent our field from moving in the wrong direction.

Rebecca: Absolutely. That’s definitely what we’re promoting with CatalystVETS, and what we believe in, too.

Justine: Good.

Rebecca: Because it’s not headed in the direction it needs to.

Justine: Right.

Rebecca: What about the idea of VetGirl? How did you come up with it? How has it taken off? It’s a great idea.

Justine: Thank you. I actually came up with the idea ten years ago when I was studying for my emergency critical care boards. I remember wanting to go for a hike with my dog or run in the woods for mental health. Instead, I was stuck inside studying for boards! I felt guilty going out to exercise when I knew I should be studying!

Rebecca: Been there. Done that.

Justine: All I wanted to do was put on my Walkman (this was pre-iPhone days) and have someone teach me as I was running. A few years ago, when I was studying for my toxicology boards, I felt the same way. That’s when I reached out to Garret Pachtinger, a fellow criticalist. Garret and I created VetGirl, a subscription-based podcast and webinar service that offers RACE-approved veterinary continuing education (CE). It’s designed to be tech savvy, where you can get 20 hours of CE through your Smart Phone as long as you have Internet access!

As an emergency critical specialist, I’m a total multi-tasker. I like to run, I like to exercise, and I like to learn at the same time! With VetGirl, you can learn while you’re commuting to work, walking your dog, or running!
I often get asked about the name VetGirl. The name is based off the popularity of “girl” in pop culture right now. But it’s also aimed to focus on our predominantly female field. It’s aimed for the demographic of veterinarians that grew up with a Smart Phone in their hand.

I’m really excited and passionate about VetGirl. I think it’ll help revolutionize the way we learn, while keeping us up to date on veterinary literature simultaneously. We released VetGirl in July of 2013, and have been excited to see it grow. With a subscription to VetGirl ELITE (which is $199 a year), you get access to 20 to 24 hours of CE that you can stream from your smart phone!

Rebecca: Wow! That probably provides enough CE credits per year for any state. What a great idea.

Justine: I’m excited.

Rebecca: That certainly helps with that work-life balance, because I tell you, it’s hard to get away to go to meetings. I was supposed to go to one earlier this year, and got snowed out. I couldn’t get out of the airport.

Justine: Absolutely.

Rebecca: How has the response been?

Justine: It’s been great. We’re really excited because of our growing social media following (we have about 23,500 fans on Facebook). Our subscribers love it, and have given us nothing but positive feedback. They love our CE because it’s clinical and practical.

We’re trying to adapt the technology and improve it. Right now, it’s only streamable, which means that you need Internet access to listen to the pod casts and webinars. Our goal down the line is to make it downloadable.

Rebecca: That’s great.

Justine: Yeah. You can get a ton of free online CE nowadays through different veterinary companies, but VetGirl really prides itself on having clinically relevant, practical CE that’s presented by board-eligible specialists. We’ve done about 15 webinars already, and thousands have viewed our content and love it!

Rebecca: Wow.

Justine: Yeah. It’s definitely a fun process. Originally, when we first released VetGirl, our primary focus was emergency critical care. Since then, we’ve expanded it to include more diverse topics such as toxicology, oncology, ophthalmology, internal medicine, surgery, cardiology, and more!

It’s been really exciting to see it grow. Again, we have a huge diversity of CE topics. We just had one on backyard poultry. We even have several coming up on suicide awareness (and the prevalence in veterinary medicine), on wildlife, and on practice management. It’s been fun. It’s been neat to see it grow, and to see people really enjoy it and love the practicality of it.

Rebecca: Yeah. Absolutely. That’s awesome. We’ll definitely make sure we provide a link for our readers so they can take a look at that, if they don’t know about it already.

Rebecca: What about advice to new grads?

Justine: My advice to new grads – and my general philosophy in life – is to work hard and play hard. I know there are a lot of discrepancies in the way different generations work (e.g., Baby Boomer versus X, Y versus Millennial generations). I do think that during your first three years as a new veterinarian, it’s so important to develop your skill-set. Work hard for a top quality practice, and put in your time. This may be 60-80 hours a week initially, but it’s important to really develop your clinical skills in the beginning of your career.

Also, I think it’s important to stay broad and diversified so you can do it all: see emergencies, do surgery, be able to dig into some internal medicine, yet knowing when to refer. The most important advice for new grads is to know that you’re going to make mistakes. We’ve all made them. Just don’t make the same mistake twice. Work really hard; acknowledge that you’re going to make mistakes; always continue to learn; and aim to constantly improve your quality of care.

Rebecca: That’s great.

Justine: Another is to live frugally. I’m a big believer in this – especially as veterinary school debt grows tremendously. With smart financial advice and guidance, you can pay off your loans in 10-15 years.

Rebecca: Absolutely. It shouldn’t take 30 years, or whatever insane amount the “experts” recommend.

Justine: I was really fortunate. I paid mine off in 11 years, and that was with one internship – one super internship – and three years of residency. Until last March, I drove a Hyundai. It’s really important that people live within their means and realize that they have to live in a frugal manner to be able to get themselves out of debt. Otherwise, they’re going to be completely stressed out from that heavy financial burden. Nobody wants that. It slowly eats away from your passion in veterinary medicine.

The third thing is ‘work hard and play hard’. Veterinarians need to have an outlet. This is really important because of the statistics that show veterinarians are at a higher risk for suicide, depression, and mental health disorders.

Make sure you have non-veterinarian related habits or hobbies. I didn’t start playing sports like ice hockey and ultimate Frisbee until I was 30. I didn’t start running until I was 35. In my spare time (ha ha), I love to read, garden, hike with the dog, and travel. It’s so important to have an outlet away from veterinary medicine so you can turn your brain off.

Rebecca: That is great advice. What do you think veterinary medicine is going to be like in ten years?

Justine: I’m going to try to stay optimistic. My projection is that in ten years, veterinary medicine is going to be predominately female, with less business ownership and more large corporate companies owning veterinarian clinics. I think there will be a lowered respect level (by the general public) for veterinarians, and it continues to get worse, with more competition between veterinarians.

I’ve seen veterinary medicine change significantly in the 17 years I’ve been a vet, and not necessarily in positive ways. When I graduated, there was no such thing as social media or online reviews. We never had to deal with these things. Now, veterinarians are much more in the limelight.

We also need to utilize our AVMA delegates more to make sure that our voice is represented. They’ve done a great job in certain areas (such as the Farm Bill). We need to make sure they are addressing future issues such as student debt load, mental health, and an over-abundance of veterinarians.

Justine: Also, we need to step back and look at our profession on a global level. Why are veterinarians getting so burnt out that they don’t want to own practices? Why are they depressed? Why are they committing suicide? Are we becoming a pink-collar profession with a lower respect level and a higher debt load? What do we do about this?

But I’m going to stay optimistic. With baby steps and improvements in leadership, we can keep our profession strong. We do need to be progressive, move forward and be aggressive about making sure that we as veterinarians are viewed in a positive light – especially among pet owners.

Rebecca: That’s great stuff. I think you’re entirely on point on that. Hopefully, people like you can help that happen, and help move the industry in a positive direction instead of a negative one, that’s for sure.

Justine: The funny thing is, I never thought that I, as a C student, would be a small business owner of VetGirl.

Rebecca: I get that. I never thought I would be a small business owner, either.

Justine: It’s really important that we stay optimistic. My general philosophy is everyone has great ideas. People don’t always take the time to take that great idea to the next level. I really encourage future veterinarians or new grads to still stay positive, to stay passionate about the field, and to make sure we are moving in the right direction.

Rebecca: Anything else you’d like to add?

Justine: Actually, we are very passionate about a free webinar on suicide awareness in May. It will air May 21, 2014. You can find out more about it on our VetGirl website. Jeannine Moga, MSW, a social worker who is at NC State, and Eden Myers, DVM are hosting it. Veterinary medicine is very relational – we want to take care of our colleagues, right?

Rebecca: I guess I didn’t realize how common these issues are in veterinary medicine. It’s just so sad and crazy. That’s one thing that scares me about the debt load, too – people dealing with compassion fatigue multiplied by debt. That’s not a good situation at all. We will be sure to get that out to everyone we can.

Thank you so much for taking time out of your busy schedule to share with us. It’s been a great interview, and I so appreciate all the great things you are doing for veterinary medicine.

(continued bio from above) 

Dr. Lee lectures throughout the world on emergency, critical care, and toxicology, and is passionate about providing clinically relevant CE.  Recently, she was honored with “Speaker of the Year” at the North American Veterinary Conference (2011) and the Association des Médecines Vétérinaires du Québec (2012).

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Elliott May 18, 2014 at 8:51 am

I’m loving this interview series, Rebecca. I’ve been a big fan and follower of Justine’s work for the last couple years, so it was great to learn a little more of her story. I hope to follow in her footsteps someday soon in my own entrepreneurial endeavors!


rebecca May 19, 2014 at 9:52 pm

I am glad you are enjoying the interviews- maybe we can interview you soon!


Emily Dorsett May 19, 2014 at 4:23 pm

VetGirl sounds awesome but the frustrating thing is that in NC you can only have 3 of your 20 hours of CE per year be “computer based”. If it’s RACE approved I don’t see why it matters if you are getting the information by attending a lecture or by streaming it on your computer, iphone, etc. It’s so expensive to attend the conferences; VetGirl would be a wonderful, more affordable option and yet it’s impossible to fulfill our annual CE requirements by utilizing it here in NC.


rebecca May 19, 2014 at 9:51 pm

That is nuts Emily- did not realize that was the case in NC- thanks so much for letting us know. Yes it is an amazing service and is so much more convenient that having to travel somewhere to get the same level of CE


Vet Continuing Education July 18, 2014 at 8:43 am

Love to see Veterinary Innovator Dr. Justine Lee interview. VetGirl sounds superb and great addition in CE.


rebecca July 30, 2014 at 2:06 pm

Thanks for reading and commenting!


Amanda Rose August 6, 2014 at 12:15 pm

I am waiting for your next interview because this interview gives lots of informations.


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