Public health expert: Most veterinary students' view of profession is too narrow


Schools urged to recruit more students interested in public service from the outset.

Marguerite Pappaioanou has spent nearly three decades in the public health arena after just three years as a clinical veterinarian. She has long been an advocate of public health as a career for veterinarians, asking her colleagues to “step up to the plate” on global health issues.

In 2002, she challenged veterinary students and professionals on two fronts: 1) Too few veterinarians were working in public health, and 2) too few upcoming veterinarians were interested in disciplines outside of companion animal medicine. She blamed some of those issues on “our own limited and narrow perception of what ‘veterinarians do.’”

Today Pappaioanou, an epidemiologist and Centers for Disease Control (CDC) liaison for food safety to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), counts more than 100 veterinarians working at the CDC and just as many at the FDA. In fact, she says more veterinarians work on food safety issues in her unit than medical doctors.

But, she says, it is still true today that too few veterinary students are choosing to go into public service. Pappaioanou served as executive director of the American Association of Veterinary Medical Colleges from 2007 to 2011 during the time when the Roadmap for Veterinary Medical Education in the 21st Century was hammered out by the North American Veterinary Medical Education Consortium. The road map, she says, establishes core competencies for veterinary education designed to ensure that graduates study public health, food safety, zoonotic diseases and other nonclinical areas to prepare them for public service. She calls the road map “a major milestone,” but she argues more work is left to be done.

Veterinary schools, she suggests, need to begin recruiting students who want to enter public service, and the desire for public service needs to be honored by acceptance committees. “Right now I think in a lot of the classes [of students] who are accepted, you still get close to 100 percent who want to be small animal practitioners in a city, somehow, someway, when they graduate,” she says.

Once these service-minded students are recruited, she says, they need to be supported by the faculty “so they won’t be crunched by the specialists.” The problem with selection committees is that most of them are, naturally, staffed by faculty members, and the vast majority of faculty members are clinical specialists. “Many of them will tell students … ‘Why are you wasting your time doing that?’” she says.

Similarly, she says veterinarians need more confidence in what veterinary education has prepared them to do in nonclinical fields. “The fact that I’m a veterinarian helps me do my job better every day,” she says. “Yet I spent 22 years at the CDC and never touched an animal. I rarely even worked on zoonotic diseases.”

Pappaioanou caught the bug for public service as a student in a parasitology class at Michigan State University taught by a professor who had worked at the Buenos Aires Zoonosis Control Center on a specific parasite carried by dogs. “The light went on,” she says. “You mean you could work in veterinary medicine and you could help—in a very direct way—keep people healthy by keeping dogs healthy?”

As her educational goals shifted and she went on for a master’s and PhD, she found herself in a legendary class taught by the late Calvin Schwabe at UC-Davis. “After the first lecture,” she says, “I was sold. He had me. Nobody else could just light up the room like Cal. And all those light bulbs would be flashing off and you’d feel so proud of being a veterinarian and of the profession. You’d get goose bumps. You’d come out of his lectures feeling like ‘I can change the world. I can make a difference.’”

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