Students examine a horse skull in an anatomy lab at Virginia-Maryland Regional
College of Veterinary Medicine.
"Make sure students know the profession is open, available, worthy of consideration, and welcoming," said Greenhill, associate executive director for diversity at the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges.
Greenhill is trying to make a diverse population interested in a field where, according to the 2000 U.S. census, 92.4 percent of veterinary professionals were listed as "white non-Hispanic."
At that time, 73.6 percent of physicians and surgeons were listed as white non-Hispanic, as were 82.8 percent of dentists, 86.5 percent of optometrists, 78.9 percent of pharmacists, and 80.4 percent of registered nurses.
But recent increases in minority enrollment at AAVMC member schools have been encouraging, Greenhill said. The number of students from minority groups underrepresented in veterinary medicine has increased from less than 10 percent in 2005 to just less than 12 percent now, she said.
"It's still incredibly small compared with other health professions, but it is a significant increase in a short period of time," Greenhill said.
That increase corresponds with about a 5 percent increase in students at veterinary colleges in the same time period, Greenhill said.
Officials with the AAVMC are trying to increase diversity as part of a broader national recruitment strategy aimed at increasing the number of students applying to veterinary schools.
John Roane, chief operating officer for the AAVMC and staff liaison for the national recruitment strategy's steering committee, said his organization hopes to centralize recruitment plans across colleges and bring more students into the field.
Surveys commissioned by the AAVMC indicate cumbersome admissions requirements and misconceptions about the scope and nature of the field thin the numbers of prospective students who ultimately study to become veterinarians, Roane said.
And Greenhill cited cultural differences as another deterrent for potential veterinary students.
In fall 2005, the AAVMC studied and compared diversity and growth across veterinary medical colleges and those of other health professions. Organization officials found the veterinary profession was more uniform by race, ethnicity, and gender than other health care fields.
The AAVMC's 2005 report "DVM: DiVersity Matters" says 9.7 percent of students at member colleges were part of underrepresented minority groups. And it says diversity improves cultural competence of the profession and community health.
Under a subsequent contract from the AAVMC, marketing firm Stamats Inc. surveyed about 4,900 college students and concluded, in part, that misconceptions about the scope, pay, and workload of veterinarians may reduce the number of students who decide to enter the field.
Stamats also surveyed 232 academic advisers and determined those advisers largely didn't know enough about nontraditional areas of veterinary medicine and seldom recommended veterinary medicine to students outside a narrow profile.
The AVMA Task Force on Diversity final report, "Unity Through Diversity," which was received by the Executive Board in November 2006, cites societal and professional factors in the veterinary profession's lack of diversity.
"Veterinary medicine is still one of the most racially, ethnically, and culturally homogeneous professions in the country," the report says. "AVMA members look less and less like the demographic composition of the United States as a whole."
The AAVMC's definition for underrepresented groups involves representation by gender, race, ethnicity and geographic, socioeconomic or economic disadvantage.
The report says challenges facing the profession include care of animals brought for diagnosis and treatment by "clients of diverse linguistic and cultural backgrounds." And food animal practitioners need to be able to talk to workers who don't speak English.
Turning gatekeepers into gateways
Roane said the AAVMC is working to educate individual student advisers and the National Association of Advisors for the Health Professions. Undergraduate students typically engage advisers on some level while applying to veterinary schools, he said.
But some advisers have anecdotally said they encouraged students to switch their academic focus because of the admissions process, Roane said. And some students have confided that admissions requirements are so cumbersome they chose to go into human medicine instead.
"At the core of this is that there is an unpleasant experience that happens at the beginning and we feel needs to be removed," Roane said.
Roane said one of the AAVMC's largest recruitment-related projects involves streamlining prerequisites across veterinary schools.
Students pursuing veterinary degrees apply at an average of 3.8 schools each, Roane said, and trying to meet requirements for all schools can be daunting.
"It's very challenging for an applicant to navigate through the varied prerequisites," Roane said.
Culture, race, and profession
Cherese Sullivan, a member of the Student AVMA's Multicultural Student Outreach Committee and a third-year student at the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, said recruitment, the climate of veterinary schools, and the mindset of communities not heavily served by veterinarians contribute to who studies to join the profession.
"We really have to provide financial support to be able to reach underrepresented students—culturally underrepresented students," Sullivan said.
Sullivan said some students don't think a job in veterinary medicine is lucrative enough. Others have no contact with veterinarians, she said.
"There's a lot people who never met a veterinarian, let alone a veterinarian of the same cultural background as them," Sullivan said.
Without receiving veterinary care for pets, many minorities are not exposed to the importance of clinical practice, Sullivan said.
AAVMC members have been increasing the organization's visibility at national meetings of minority science students, Greenhill said. Those include meetings of organizations such as Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources and Related Sciences, and the Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science.
The number of students seeking information from the AAVMC at those meetings is increasing, Greenhill said. But the percentage of students from underrepresented groups attending the schools is, compared with other health professions, incredibly small, she said.
"Certainly I think that there have been some substantial improvements in this target area of recruiting underrepresented students," Greenhill said.
Sullivan agreed the increase in minority student enrollment is encouraging but said there is a lot of work needed for recruitment and retention of students.
Greenhill said the AAVMC is also trying to reach students in communities with different cultural views of both pet ownership and veterinary medicine.
Greenhill said minorities' view of veterinary medicine is often narrowed to only companion animal medicine, and pet ownership is more common in predominantly white communities than among other racial groups.
In 2006, 63.1 percent of whites owned pets, compared with 57.5 percent of Spanish and Hispanics; 49.4 percent of Asians, Pacific Islanders, American Indians and Aleut Eskimos; and 26.6 percent of blacks, according to the AVMA's 2007 U.S. Pet Ownership & Demographics Sourcebook.
Showing the professional opportunities in research, public health, industry, and public practice could help increase recruitment, Greenhill said. Advocates for the profession can reach underrepresented groups by focusing on the clinical and business sides of veterinary medicine.
Students from urban areas often have limited experience with animals, particularly large animals, Greenhill said. The profession may be able to draw them into food animal medicine by offering career opportunities with more space and less congestion.
Greenhill said she has heard from minority students that they don't like animals, and they don't think they have a place in veterinary medicine. She tells them there are veterinary careers that don't involve touching animals.
And she said students need to know they can use veterinary education to get into professions involving medical research that affects humans.
"It's just a different path," Greenhill said.