By Kelsie Donaldson on June 12, 2023

Michael J. Blackwell, DVM, MPH, leads a career of public service. His work as director of the Program for Pet Health Equity at the University of Tennessee’s College of Social Work centers around improving access to veterinary care, especially for families with limited means. Additionally, Blackwell formerly chaired the Access to Veterinary Care Coalition, which aims to draw attention to lack of access to veterinary care. He strives to educate the veterinary profession and its surrounding communities and foster the development of methods to provide access to care for the millions of pets currently without it.

In celebration of the College’s Alumni Awards, where Blackwell was named an Honorary Alum, and his commencement address to the Class of 2023, Blackwell answered a few questions about his career, mission, and experience visiting MSU.

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What initially drew you to veterinary medicine?

I didn’t have much of a choice! My dad was a mixed animal practitioner when I was born, so I grew up around the profession.

What is something you learned in veterinary school that you still use today?

I learned a ton, as most veterinary students do, because I got such a great education at Tuskegee University. But what comes to mind is actually what my dad told me right as I was graduating. I was experiencing some anxiety about whether I was ready, whether I knew enough. And he told me that being educated meant that I knew how to find information I need when I need it. It seems simple, but it addressed my anxiety and helped me understand that I don’t have to be a walking encyclopedia of knowledge—life is too complex for that. So, over the years, that sage advice has served me well as I go into new roles.

Why is the Pet Health Equity Program’s mission so important?

There is a lot of harm being done when families can’t get veterinary care. The harm involves multiple parties. Obviously, the pets that need the care may experience prolonged recovery and pain, or worse yet, die prematurely. Because these pets are family members—that’s not my opinion, that’s what society says about their pets, as 95 percent of pet owners regard their pets as family members—when the pets suffer, their people suffer.

Veterinary care teams are also harmed. It’s not a good experience for someone to show up in crisis, needing help, but not having the financial resources. Most people on veterinary care teams want to help, yet they can’t “give away the store” and provide free service. So, too often people are turned away and not helped in that moment, and sometimes, someone they love is euthanized. Yet the care team is standing there, knowing exactly what they could do and how to do it. They want to do it, but there’s that barrier there. There’s an ethical and moral dilemma, in other words, that these care teams are experiencing.

Additionally, our communities are harmed due to this public health concern. When they don’t have access to care, communities see a situation where we’re failing to prevent and control zoonotic diseases.

With a lack of access to care, everybody loses. That’s why it’s so important that we address this growing crisis.

What does a typical day look like for you as UT’s director of the Program for Pet Health Equity?

We work toward our mission of improving access to veterinary care, especially for those with limited means, by engaging in service activity, research, and education. Our service activity focuses on AlignCare, which is a One Health system for improving access to care. Day in and day out, I’m meeting with individuals and groups to talk about access to veterinary care and various strategies that may make a difference. I’m meeting with these folks to educate, inspire, and motivate them to be involved in one way or another with the issue of access to veterinary care.

What does it mean for you to receive the Honorary Alumni Award from MSU?

Dr. Blackwell receives his Honorary Alumni Award from Interim Dean Freeman

It’s among the greatest honors I’ve ever received—to be recognized as a member of the family. I want to thank all who had anything to do with that decision. MSU has been on my radar for many years, and there’s been a familial connection. When I became dean of the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine, it didn’t take very long to understand that history; the founding dean and a number of the original faculty were from MSU. And they did such an amazing job. Some fondly think of the University of Tennessee as “MSU South.”

I also came to learn that MSU is one of the foremost colleges of veterinary medicine providing internships to people of color. The University of Tennessee does a mighty-fine job training residents of color. As a minority, I have held MSU in high regard because there is a commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. No one is saying it’s perfect, but I see the organizations that are demonstrating real commitment through actions and decisions. And so of course I embrace being an honorary alum of MSU!

What are some things you thought about when deciding what to include in your commencement speech?

Blackwell delivering the 2023 commencement address

One of the things I had in mind when drafting that presentation was socioeconomic trends in the country. When we look at the cost of delivering veterinary care, we can anticipate continued growth of families that are underserved. We as a nation are often still operating in 20th century systems and ideologies that are not in synch with a 21st century society. My intent was to encourage our graduates to go out understanding the world they’re stepping into.

I also wanted to convey that because 95 percent of people with pets consider them family members, those of us in companion animal practice should see ourselves as providers of family healthcare. If we shift that paradigm–and it will take our new graduates–we can expedite change by starting in the right place, with the mindset that we’re not just treating animals, we’re treating family members.

What do you like to do in your free time?

I’m a music lover, and my hobby for many years has been around audio equipment and fondness for some of the vintage designs that were better in so many respects than what gets sold today. You can play music to fit your mood or change your mood, and that’s been very life-imparting for me.