Why does diversity matter in veterinary medicine?

November 16, 2019

One school dean believes there are moral issues involved in increasing access to veterinary schools for underrepresented groups, but also educational, societal and business benefits with increasing diversity.

There's a value to more diversity in veterinary medicine (which has become a very white profession), and Carlos Risco, DVM, DACT, the dean of Oklahoma State University's College of Veterinary Medicine in Stillwater, wants to make all the arguments for it.

dvm360 spoke with Dr. Risco about the continued lack of diversity in the veterinary profession and approaches to increase diversity in colleges of veterinary medicine.

Although the profession is making great strides with respect to diversity, he noted that it still lags behind other health professions in this respect.

“It seems to me that, to move the needle, our discussion needs to center on why diversity matters,” he says. “What's the value to students, the profession and society?”

What do we mean by diversity?

According to Dr. Risco, in defining diversity, the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges released a position statement last year which says the AAVMC “identified and recognized the presence of specific historically underrepresented populations in veterinary medicine (URVM) whose advancement in the veterinary medical profession has been disproportionately impacted due to legal, cultural or social climate impediments in the United States. The specific dimensions are: gender, race, ethnicity (African Americans, Asian Americans, American Indians, Native Alaskans and Hawaiians, Hispanics), and geographic, socioeconomic and educational disadvantage.”

But in defining the issue, we must also acknowledge that no single aspect of diversity exists in isolation, argues Dr. Risco. Each individual person is a reflection of multiple diversity dimensions.

What are the barriers to diversity in veterinary medicine?

Significant gains have been made in attracting women into veterinary medicine. In 2009, women outnumbered men in veterinary medicine for the first time, and the profession now predominantly comprises white women who dominate many segments of the profession. The primary barrier today to diversity in the profession is the low number of male and female members of the URVM that matriculate at colleges of veterinary medicine. To increase the number, Dr. Risco says we need more of these individuals in the applicant pool, and colleges of veterinary medicine need to expand efforts to recruit students from these groups.

Individuals from URVM typically choose to enter professions they see as having a direct impact on social issues facing their communities, according to Dr. Risco. These individuals may not realize exactly how the veterinary profession can positively affect their communities with food insecurity or disparities in the availability of veterinary care.

Additionally, many individuals from URVM may have limited experiences interacting with—and especially with veterinarians who belong to URVM—who could serve as mentors and role models. The need for those role models will be profound, Dr. Risco says, as the U.S. Census Bureau projects that, by 2042, the United States will have become a majority-minority population. So, as society becomes more culturally diverse, there's an expectation that the cultural makeup of the veterinary workforce should also evolve to reflect changing demographics.

How does diversity benefit the veterinary profession?

The need for diversity springs from a “moral belief to achieve social justice and modify historical inequality,” says Dr. Risco, but studies have shown that diversity in colleges is beneficial for many reasons.

Increased diversity improves access to healthcare in the United States in regions where serious ethnic and racial disparities exist. It can lead to accelerated advances in public health and medical research, he says, because the more diverse backgrounds and experiences of researchers shape their critical thinking. Diversity also encourages active thinking, says Dr. Risco, as well as intellectual engagement that helps students become culturally competent.

Increasing diversity in the veterinary profession also makes good business sense, as it helps meet the needs of a growing population of people who will become the profession's potential clients.

“Many people from minority populations prefer veterinarians with similar backgrounds to them,” say Dr. Risco.

How can colleges of veterinary medicine increase the number of UMVR students in veterinary medicine?

As a model for best practices to design college diversity programs, Dr. Risco provided examples from colleges of veterinary medicine in the U.S.

For a diversity program to be successful, he stressed the need for the deans and other leaders to emphasize its importance and allocate financial and human resources to the initiative.

In colleges of veterinary medicine, one aim of these programs should be to channel the pipeline to diversity in the profession, says Dr. Risco. That might mean efforts in the K-20 education system,  creating mentorship opportunities from private practice and ensuring accurate representations of diverse groups among the college faculty and staff as well as among members of the search committee for hiring faculty and staff.

“It's not just within the student body that diversity matters,” says Dr. Risco. “We also need to increase the numbers of individuals from URVM among faculty and staff.”

Ultimately, work on diversity will help make veterinary students more civic-minded and develop stronger intellectual and interpersonal skills, Dr. Risco believes.

“Change takes time, but we need to continue to act in our institutions” to increase diversity, he says, “because inaction leads to costs to us all.”

Nicola Parry, BVSc, MRCVS, MSc, DACVP, FRSPH, ELS, is an independent veterinary pathology consultant with Midwest Veterinary Pathology in Lafayette, Indiana.