Dr. Andy Roark is a veterinarian, international speaker, and author. He is an award-winning columnist for DVM360, and has a regular column on Vetstreet.com. Dr. Roark’s popular Facebook page has over 50,000 fans, and his humorous educational videos have been viewed over 375,000 times. For more information about Dr. Roark, go to http://www.drandyroark.
Rebecca: Tell me a little bit about yourself, and how you ended up in veterinary medicine.
Andy: My dad is a general surgeon in Statesville, North Carolina. I grew up witnessing the golden age of human medicine, and that had a big affect on me. I always looked at my dad as someone who was really helping people. I remember as a little kid, we’d have dinner at restaurants and people would come over and say, “Oh, you don’t know me, but you did surgery on my mother, and I just want to say thank you.” That was really a defining thing in my life, and how I came to understand the value in helping people. That was always a powerful thing for me.
I was going to go be a human doctor like my dad. I went to college, and medicine was changing rapidly. It still is. Because of those changes, my dad wasn’t as happy as he used to be. Things he really found value in were becoming less common in medicine.
So there I was in my junior year of college and I was still planning to go to medical school. Because a lot of times, we get a plan and we just cling to that plan because that’s what we know.
Rebecca: Yeah, it’s what we’re comfortable with.
Andy: Exactly right. It’s what we’ve always had, and it’s much easier to have a plan that’s not a great plan than to not know what we’re doing with our lives. That’s a scary thing. I think a lot of us live in that place. We feel it’s better to be walking somewhere than just standing and figuring out -or admitting that we’re wondering. So, he finally said to me “I’m not sure I would do this again if I was starting now.”
That’s a powerful thing. I was still doing research, which I enjoyed. After I graduated, I actually went into research, because I had the science background and I loved teaching. I went to the National Institute of Health for a year, and then I went to the University of Florida to get a Masters and was planning to continue on and get a PhD.
I ended up in the Department of Zoology doing physiology research. I found that a lot of the research life was not really what I was looking for. I didn’t feel like I was making a difference. Don’t get me wrong – research is very valuable. However, there’s a long delay between the research to actual human implications of that research. It just wasn’t something I was really passionate about.
I’ve always had this desire to think about where I am. I’m a big strategic planning guy. I think a lot about what I like about where I am and what I’m doing, and what I don’t like. How do I do more of what I like and less of what I don’t like? It’s so simple to think about that, but most people don’t.
We should all take time and ask, “What do I like about being a vet and what do I not like? How do I move to do more of what I like and minimize what I don’t like?”
Andy: I started putting all these things together. I like working with animals. I love the teaching. I always liked medicine. I like fixing things with my hands. I like putting my hands on things and helping people. All of those things together led me to veterinary medicine. I was not one of those people who grew up in the beginning and said, “I want to be a vet.” It was a lot of different pieces and experiences that came together, and ultimately I said, “This is what I want and need to do.”
Rebecca: Was your dad supportive of that?
Andy: Oh, absolutely. He told me, “You need to feel good with what you do and you need to be happy.” And that’s really it. You need to feel like what you do has some value. Then, you just have to choose to be happy and go out and make yourself happy.
When I got to vet medicine, I had a big background in research but not any business training. I saw what my dad was going through and how human medicine had changed.
There are these huge corporations and HMOs taking over, and I remember there was a lot of pressure on my dad. He needed to join a group. His livelihood as a professional was really threatened. I think, that that was still really heavy on my mind. When I was at the University of Florida the VBMA, the Veterinary Business Management Association, was just getting started. I liked the idea of practice ownership because it has the ability to help us control our own destiny.
I have always enjoyed learning about business development and practice management. It has never been about money for me. Practice ownership has always been about freedom and the ability to practice medicine the way I want, and to have that life I want to have. I knew that making yourself the best professional you can be is important because it really opens doors for you. If you’re a wonderful professional, you have great control over your career and your life.
I got very excited about the idea of owning my own practice one day. I became focused on becoming a veterinarian who practices really good medicine and provides service for people without burning myself out. I helped run the VBMA chapter at Florida for a year, and then I ran the national VBMA.
Andy: The national VMBA was just getting started and it was in a rapid growth phase. I think a lot of people know me for that. I got a lot of credit for that growth, which is probably largely undeserved, because there were a lot of other people who really helped too. I was “the face person” at the time of high visibility and growth. That enabled me to meet a lot of people.
When I graduated from veterinary school, I refused to give all those people up. I stayed in contact with them, and I continued to find ways to do things with them. I was really involved in the profession and doing things right from the very beginning. After I graduated, I was often asked to speak about the struggles of being a recent graduate.
The next thing I know, someone asked me to write a column for what was DVM Newsmagazine at the time. It’s now DVM360. They said, ” We’re looking for a young voice.” I wanted to do it. So, I thought about what I could say that was valuable and something people would want to hear.
I came up with about six things, so I went back to the editor at DVM at that time, and said, “I can do it, but I’m really busy.” which was not entirely true. I said, “I’m really busy, so I can write a column every other month and we’ll see how it goes. At the end of the year we’ll reassess.”
My plan was I could write six columns that I thought could bring value worth reading for people. And so I would write every other month. At the end of the year I would say, “Oh, I don’t have enough time.” No one would ever know that I was just out of ideas and I didn’t have anything more to say. That was about 65 articles ago, which is hilarious.
And the speaking naturally follows. You write a few things that people want to hear and then they say, “Hey, you know, we’d like to hear more of what you have to say.“ It’s all about trying to bring value to people. Then it’s just constant development and trying to make stronger points.
Andy: You want memorable points that will inspire people to take action.
Rebecca: Right, that’s the key.
Andy: It’s just constantly pushing in that way. With writing, I worked with people who were copy editors and asked them how I could be a better writer. I’ve worked with people who’d proofread, and I would show my work to them and get feedback. Speaking is just about practice. I joined Toastmasters. Then I got into improv comedy, which is just thinking on your feet and working in front of a crowd. Those things help me be more interactive when I lecture.
Ultimately, it’s about telling a great story. That’s what life is about. If you want to persuade people, and you want to inspire and motivate them, you’ve got to tell a story. It doesn’t have to be a once-upon-a-time story. But, honestly, when pet owners walk into our clinic, we need to tell them a story. We need to tell them the story of our clinic and the culture. We want them to know what we’re about, why we care, and then show them we care.
When we tell them about diabetes, we need to tell them a story because that’s what is memorable. The people who tell the best stories win. And so, every time people see us and interact with us, we’re telling them our story. If we tell a bad story, people won’t get it. Then, they won’t respond to us as strongly and we get poor compliance.
Rebecca: We’re not taught to tell a story. We’re taught to tell facts, and that’s not what people want to hear. People don’t just want the facts when it’s about something as emotional as their pets.
Andy: Right. They want to hear a story. That’s how we educate them. That’s how we make them remember. I got really caught up in that idea of “I tell stories.” And so that’s why the things I guess I’m best known for now are some of the videos and things that I do, which are all educational. It’s all about trying to help the vet profession. I really just see myself as a servant leader, someone who’s really trying to aid my people. It’s all about “How do I help the people I care about most?”
Andy: I feel like those of us in the veterinary community are good people, and we work so hard. I want to support people and their pets. If there are things I can say to that end, I want to say them. I want to help people tell a better story. I looked at the videos we were making to educate people, like on DVM360, and there were these interview videos, but few people were really watching them. I saw it as an opportunity. I can make the same points I would make in an interview, but tell a story. I thought people might watch that.
So far the response has been great. Then I thought I could tell stories to pet owners, too. That’s one of the things I’m focusing on now. When you see the videos, it’s me trying to tell a story people will laugh at, as well as remember and retain. That’s really what I’m trying to do. And that’s how I got where I am.
Rebecca: That’s awesome. That is quite the story, no pun intended. It really gets me fired up, because we’re dealing with a profession full of awesome people – whether it’s the veterinarians, staff, or the whole nine yards. But I see so many people who are miserable. This isn’t right. How can this be happening in our profession? As far as I’m concerned we have the coolest profession there is. And to be honest, I never gave an ounce of thought to being a human surgeon, because I wouldn’t want to work the way they have to work. I love what I do. I love the people we get to serve, the clients and their pets. It’s just sad for me to see so many unhappy people.
Rebecca: What I heard from you is having the freedom to control your destiny and to have choices. Anything else you’d add to that?
Andy: For me, the most obvious thing is a life with purpose. It’s the ability to actually put your hands on something that’s a huge problem. I mean pet health is a huge problem for people – when their pets are sick, it’s their family member who is sick. We have the ability to fix it. Every time I make one of these goofy videos, my thought is, “How can help I these families?”
I do this for the pets. People say, “Oh my gosh, you’re a vet who put on a dog costume!” And I say, “You know what? Yes I am.” And there are people out there who roll their eyes at me and say, “Oh, it doesn’t look very professional.” Well, you know what, that’s okay, because I don’t do this to look professional. I don’t do it to look cool or to pat my own ego. I do it to make a point for pet owners. So, if I put on a dog costume, and one less dog gets heat stroke because I made a silly video about being careful when you exercise, then I’m okay with that.
Andy: There is a great comfort in having a purpose and saying, “This is what I do and this is why I do it.” You can check everything against that, and you can say, “Why am I doing this … is this ego or am I really helping?” As long as the answer is, “this serves the purpose, this supports why I do what I do,” then I think you’re in a great place, because you’ll feel good about what you do.
Haters are going to hate. Some people are always going to say something negative. For example, if you go into acupuncture, there will be people who will say, “Oh, that’s hocus-pocus.” Whatever – let them say that. You’re doing it because you love to do it and you see it helps. Just help the pets and forget what those people say.
Andy: It’s a whole lot easier to actually do that, to blow people off if you can say, “You know what, I don’t care what you think. I’m going to do this because it’s important and it supports what I’m about.” You can do that when you have a purpose in life, and I think that veterinary medicine can give us that purpose. I think we all know what we’re trying to do and that’s a powerful thing. It helps me every day.
END OF INTERVIEW PART 1