Richard DeBowes: Champion for veterinary medicine and its practitioners

Dr. Richard DeBowes standing in front of one the main entrances to the College of Veterinary Medicine on the WSU Pullman Campus.

Educator, veterinarian, and leader, Richard DeBowes (’82 MS) has transformed traditional veterinary medicine education. During the past 20 years, he has developed and taught pioneering programs for veterinary students and practitioners. Both revolutionary and practical, these globally recognized courses focus on leadership, business practice, finance management, and communication skills. Through his insightful, compassionate approach to learning, he guides students to define their unique professional and personal goals – and provides tools to achieve them.

A 1979 DVM graduate of the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine, DeBowes completed his equine internship and equine surgical residency at Washington State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine (CVM). Following WSU, he served as assistant professor of equine surgery and chief of equine services at Kansas State University (KSU) until appointed veterinary clinical sciences chair in 1994. In 2000, DeBowes returned to Pullman as chair of the department of clinical sciences in the CVM. He also served as associate dean of veterinary development and external relations. Currently, he is a professor in the Department of Veterinary Clinical Sciences.

In this interview, DeBowes reflects on his life, work, and vision for the future of veterinary medicine.

When and why did you choose veterinary medicine as a profession?

I didn’t initially choose veterinary medicine. I planned to pursue a medical education, but my father came home one day and said he’d found me a job at an animal hospital owned by his friend, Dr. Clyde Shouse. I started at the Agawam Animal Hospital cleaning floors and cages, mowing lawns, and feeding hospitalized animals. Eventually, I was asked to hold animals and support the veterinary team. Over several years of work during high school, my interest in veterinary medicine grew. I also had the good fortune to work with caring, competent professionals in Dr. Shouse and his partner, Dr. Ray Jackson.

When did you make the decision to pursue equine veterinary practice?

I didn’t grow up with horses as a city kid in Massachusetts, and the only horses I’d seen were used by the police or in parades. I was introduced to horses in college and taken with their incredible strength and personalities. In veterinary school, I worked in a large animal clinic over the holidays and part-time in the summers. Several of my equine professors noted my interest and efforts and encouraged me to pursue an equine-focused career.

Did you experience challenges on your journey to becoming a veterinarian?

I applied to veterinary school three times as an out-of-state resident before I was eventually admitted. Despite good grades, years of hands-on experience, and a 99 percent on the veterinary aptitude test, I wasn’t admitted. I worked briefly in law enforcement before moving to Illinois to enter graduate school and establish residency. In 1975, I was accepted to the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine.

What influenced your commitment to make a difference in others’ lives and futures?

My grandfather was a Lutheran minister. My mother, grandmother, and aunt were teachers. Several of my relatives were in law enforcement. Helping others was what we did, and that was manifest in the work of nearly all my relatives. It was probably in my DNA and most certainly present in the environment that shaped my behaviors and thinking.

What led to your insights that leadership and professional life skills are vital for success in veterinary medicine?

At KSU, there was an overwhelming call for graduates who could work as members of a team, connect effectively with clients, and add value to the practices they served. It became clear we were providing a great medical education but not addressing key competencies, such as organizational culture, clinical communication, and practice management. When I arrived at WSU and found more than an adequate team of equine surgeons, I decided to focus on the growth of those professional skills, rather than continuing to serve as a surgeon.

Why do you believe communication skills are key to veterinary practice success?

There are many definitions of the word communicate. The one I favor most is ‘to connect.’ For caregivers to improve the lives of their patients, it’s vital they truly connect with their owners – our clients. I believe veterinary medicine is best practiced relationally. It’s essential our clients trust us and believe we’re operating in their pets’ best interest. Excellent communication skills are a key prerequisite for clinical excellence.

What do you consider your most significant achievements?

There has been no greater personal success for me than to be the father of two wonderful children who, by the grace of God and a great deal of support from my wife, Pamela, have grown up to be intelligent, caring adults.

My greatest professional accomplishment was the development of our professional life skill programs at WSU. The original Cougar Orientation and Leadership Experience (COLE) that Dr. Kathy Ruby, Dr. Gil Burns, and I created, beginning in 2001, was groundbreaking in our profession. No college had ever done anything like the program we offered at COLE. This experiential learning activity brought together aspiring doctors focused on helping each other be successful in school and life. With funding from industry partners, we expanded COLE and hosted veterinary students from schools around the world. We also rolled out the program to veterinary professionals as the Veterinary Leadership Experience (VLE).

The communication program I helped establish with Dr. Suzanne Kurtz and Dr. Warwick “Waz” Bayly was among the early programs of its kind in veterinary medicine. The program evolved from Dr. Kurtz’s work in human medical education and utilized experiential coaches with simulated clients. This program continues to grow under the capable leadership of Dr. Julie Cary, director of simulation-based education and associate professor of veterinary clinical sciences.

Finally, the practice management elective and financial literacy core courses help our students gain a basic understanding of the business of veterinary medicine and personal finance. They learn that good medicine is also great business.

What have been the benefits for fourth-year students enrolled in the practice management rotation you launched in 2015?

Dr. Debowes with three students in a conference room.

The practice management rotation, and complementary third-year finance elective, directly improved my work as a veterinarian, my quality of life, and my financial soundness. WSU’s CVM wants to graduate confident, competent, and happy veterinarians. To this end, this was the most important rotation I took.

Jessie, CVM alumnus

In this rotation, students learn how clinics function as businesses, including assets and liabilities, revenue and expenses, and legal and risk issues. This immersion experience in the evaluation of operating veterinary practices helps our veterinary students learn skills to be successful and sustainable as professionals over a 30‑ or 40‑year career.

How can the veterinary industry best meet the demands and expectations of today and the future?

Technology will continue to expand our ability to help clients and patients. As we leverage this resource, it’s essential to ensure every effort is made to preserve the interpersonal relationship between doctor and client that underpins the successful delivery of medical care. The support of competent paraprofessionals with advanced training will be, as in human medicine, de rigueur as our profession evolves.

Our challenge will be to incorporate these dimensions without losing the relationships upon which trusting, competent care resides. We can’t surrender our practice to constituents who wish to modify the profession’s veterinary-client-patient relationship – and access clients and patients primarily for financial gain. If we do, our ability to provide happy, healthy, pain-free longevity for companion animals, and thriving, compassionate growth of production animals will be profoundly compromised.

What is a favorite childhood memory with your American collie, Rex?

One New England night, we were being battered by a hurricane. My brother, Mark, and I were so excited that our parents allowed Rex to come inside. Understand that it was a rarity to see a large dog in anyone’s house in the 1950s. Back then, large dogs lived in dog houses. We ‘camped’ in the kitchen with Rex because he was wet and muddy. His presence in our home was unprecedented – and a huge comfort to Mark and me as the storm howled through the night. The neighbor kids were jealous and near disbelief when they learned we’d had Rex in the house while their dogs were hunkered down in their garages and dog houses. Oh my, the times have changed …

Support Dr. DeBowes’ vision for faculty and student success through the Veterinary Business, Management and Financial Literacy Fund.