TAMPA — Established 75 years ago, the American Animal Hospital Association is the only organization to accredit veterinary hospitals. Member hospitals boast the AAHA "Seal of Approval," which requires meeting approximately 900 standards of care in 18 categories.
Today, more than 3,000 veterinary hospitals have attained that status. "Yes, the standards are challenging to attain, but that's the idea," says AAHA president Dr. Anna Worth, a veterinarian in Bennington, Vt. "Pet owners know when they see it's an AAHA hospital, they're receiving excellence in veterinary care." Pet owners can look for AAHA hospitals, which typically boast a sticker on the front door and a logo on their Web sites.
"Becoming an AAHA-accredited practice isn't so easy," says Dr. J.B. Bruederle of Chicago. "For example, we had to adjust the way we control pain relief. Of course, we did what we could so the pets weren't in pain. But the AAHA standards for pain control are very specific, and there are no loopholes; there's really no excuse for an animal to suffer. Being an AAHA hospital is about excellence. From a veterinarian's perspective, getting there isn't easy, but our clients and the pets are clearly the winners."
One example of an AAHA standard of care is the dental exam. Dr. John Albers, AAHA executive director, who is based in Lakewood, Colo., explains that only a few decades ago, looking at a pet's teeth and linking periodontal disease to general health wasn't considered nearly as seriously as it is today. For starters, living with periodontal disease may be painful, though owners (particularly of cats, who can be stoic about exhibiting their discomfort) may not be aware their pet is hurting. Also, the bacteria in diseased gums can impact a pet's general health, even contributing to kidney, liver and heart disease.
Today, taking care of those stinky gums and teeth is hopefully routine, a standard of care that began in great part because of the AAHA pushing the envelope. But beyond the mere idea of doing any dental procedure, the AAHA has requirements for excellence on the way it is done, from specifics on the anesthetics used to the expertise of participating veterinary technicians.
"Our standards are based on research and data, and they are continually evolving," says Albers. "Our standards are different today than they were a decade ago, and they will be different 10 years from now. Veterinary medicine and clients' needs are always evolving. Our goal is to get it right."
The AAHA requires continuing education exceeding what state veterinary medical associations mandate. One way veterinary professionals, including staff and technicians, can get that continuing education, or a portion of it, is at the AAHA Yearly Conference, which was held March 27-30 at the Tampa Convention Center. Some 2,200 veterinary professionals were on hand.
To become an AAHA hospital, a trained professional veterinary technician assesses the facility. Once a hospital earns accreditation, it is re-evaluated every three years.
Worth says AAHA hospitals focus on a team approach, involving everyone from veterinary technicians to the personnel who answer telephones and make appointments, and practice managers.
AAHA hospitals also help people in need. Pet owners who can demonstrate financial need may qualify for assistance through the AAHA Helping Pets Fund. A grant of up to $500 may be awarded.
"If your loved one deserves the best, your loved one deserves an AAHA hospital," says Bruederle. "I know it sounds like a billboard for an ad campaign, but it's true."
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