It starts in vet school: Pregnancy and parenting support lacking for students, study finds

January 14, 2019

Tufts researchers hypothesize potential parents may delay having children because policies at institutions are rare.

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Two studies done at Tufts' Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine show that support for pregnancy and parental needs is lacking at U.S. veterinary schools, according to an article from the school

The first study, which was published in November in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association (JAVMA), surveyed veterinary students, interns and residents across the U.S. about their perceptions of pregnancy and parenting support services available at their veterinary school. The second surveyed administrators from 30 accredited U.S. veterinary schools on the same topics and asked them to review their handbooks and relevant written policies on the subject. The second survey will appear in the Journal of Veterinary Medical Education (JVME) in early 2019, the article states.

The researchers were testing the hypothesis that “potential parents, and especially women, may delay having children because administrative policies and support services for pregnancy and parenting at veterinary training institutions are rare,” the article states. 

The JAVMA study found that the students surveyed, male and female, who reported that they weren't parents had intentionally delayed starting a family; women were more likely than men to say having a child was too difficult to undertake during veterinary training. It also found that men undergoing veterinary training were twice as likely as their female counterparts to be parents, become a parent, or plan to have children during veterinary school or a veterinary internship or residency.

“Despite being a female-dominated field, it appears there are some pretty significant barriers to parenthood for women,” says Megan Mueller, MA, PhD, a Tufts professor and co-author of the studies, in the article. 

The to-be-published study in JVME found few schools have formal written policies addressing parental leave or lactation needs, and the relevant written materials were accessible online for only half of the schools that had such policies. 

“If you are thinking about becoming pregnant and don't want to share your plans, you can't privately find that information,” says co-author Annie Wayne, DVM, MPH, DACVECC, clinical assistant professor and emergency and critical care veterinarian, in the article.

The JAVMA research also showed that between 33% and 50% of women in the survey who were currently pregnant or thinking of becoming pregnant reported that they either didn't feel safe or were unsure of their safety while being pregnant in their training program. 

It wasn't hard for the researchers to see why this was the case, the article notes. In the JVME research, although nearly 90 percent of the administrators surveyed said their institution had a written safety policy for pregnant students, less than half could detail where those policies could be found. Plus, only 40 percent of administrators said they had such policies for pregnant interns or residents, the article states. 

At Tufts, the researchers used their findings to increase the number of lactation locations on the Grafton campus and provide more information about pregnancy policies and resources on the Cummings public wellness website.

Joyce Knoll, VMD, PhD, DACVP, Cummings dean ad interim, and other colleagues have supported this initiative and worked to grow the veterinary school's parent meet-up group and pool of faculty-parent mentors and encourage participation in the university's new Parents Employee Resource Collaborative, the article says. 

“If we want to attract and retain the best veterinary students, faculty and staff, we must do all that we can to allow women who want to be veterinary professionals to also raise families,” Dr. Knoll says in the article. “Creating changes that facilitate pregnancy and parenting may also reduce the stress that arises when veterinary students and clinicians feel compelled to choose between their patients and their children.”   

Normalizing pregnancy and parenting during veterinary school wouldn't require an overhaul of the culture to center around eight-hour days, says Cummings research assistant professor Marieke Rosenbaum, DVM, MPH, MS, in the article. She notes that veterinary institutions could take notes from medical schools, some of which now offer flexible programs that allow parents to do their course and training work part time over eight years for the same price as the standard four-year degree, while others have installed “cry rooms” at the back of lecture halls so parents can still attend class with an infant or small child if they need to. 

She also notes that the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine reported a recent significant change to its curriculum, designing a third year around elective coursework that could be frontloaded onto the first semester so that second semester could be taken off for parental leave. “That allows new parents to take a leave and still jump into clinic rotations so they graduate on time with their peers,” Dr. Rosenbaum explains in the article.