Minorities may be an answer to veterinary workforce problems

Symposium continues to promote minority enrollment
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The U.S. veterinary profession is facing critical workforce issues that will heavily influence the role of veterinary medicine in society.

Dr. James Darden

The numbers are telling. Data indicate fewer men are choosing jobs in veterinary medicine; most veterinary graduates are forgoing food animal medicine and nontraditional career fields such as biomedical research to work as companion animal practitioners; and minority veterinarians remain a small part of a profession that's looking less and less like the society it serves.

In short, the veterinary profession is on track to becoming a mostly female profession that has limited itself to a narrow scope of service.

One way of reversing this trend is by dramatically increasing minority enrollment at U.S. veterinary medical institutions, according to the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges. For nearly three decades, the AAVMC has hosted the Iverson Bell Symposium as a means of promoting racial and ethnic diversity at veterinary schools and colleges. The AVMA has held two diversity symposia, first in 2005 and again in 2006.

But despite these and other outreach strategies, nonwhite students are mostly absent at most of the nation's veterinary institutions. Numbers compiled by the AAVMC show that in 1981, minority student enrollment as a percentage of total enrollment at U.S. veterinary schools and colleges was 5.9 percent. By 2006, it had reached 9.7 percent—an increase of a little less than 4 percent in 25 years.

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"We're about a slow process, one that hasn't made much headway, at least in the American sense of getting things done quickly," acknowledged Dr. Lawrence Heider, AAVMC executive director, during the 16th Iverson Bell Symposium, held March 1-2 in Washington, D.C.

Most health professions are having similar experiences. A 2004 report by the Institute of Medicine noted that increasing racial and ethnic diversity among health professionals is needed because it improves access to care for racial and ethnic minority patients. Greater patient choice and satisfaction and enhanced educational experience for health profession students were also cited as benefits.

The IOM report encouraged educators and other groups to focus on reducing barriers that hinder minorities from pursuing careers in health professions. Some of the barriers identified included a lack of preparation for advanced education, challenges to affirmative action policies, and financial burdens.

Other barriers specific to veterinary medicine have been suggested for why few minorities want to be veterinarians. They range from reluctance on the part of some schools and colleges to recruit out-of-state, to guidance counselors and families encouraging minority students to become medical doctors rather than veterinarians. With a few exceptions, no major study of minority perceptions of the veterinary profession have been undertaken, however.

Dr. James Darden, a fourth- year student at Tuskegee University School of Veterinary Medicine at the time of the most recent Iverson Bell Symposium, said role models have a "huge impact" on a student's career decisions. He also explained why Tuskegee graduates more than 60 percent of the nation's minority veterinary students. "Minority students are less likely to go to a school where the other students don't look like them," Dr. Darden said.

Another reason minorities are missing from the profession is that veterinarians suffer from an image problem in nonwhite communities, said Lisa Greenhill, the AAVMC's associate executive director for diversity. The dominant picture of the profession is of a white companion animal practitioner, which, while a wonderful image, isn't very compelling to African-American and Hispanic populations, Greenhill explained.

"But when we start talking to students about veterinarians as biomedical researchers, as public health veterinarians, or even as a small business owner in their neighborhood, those types of messages resonate very well," Greenhill said, adding that the research component of veterinary medicine is a very effective, but often underutilized, recruitment message.

"So many African-American students go into medicine because they want to find a cure for some particular disease that impacted someone in their family or community. I don't think we do a particularly good job of saying you can do that through us," she said.

In an ideal world, there would be more outreach programs exposing greater numbers of minorities to veterinary medicine at an early age; there would be more scholarship money for minorities and economically disadvantaged students wanting to be veterinarians. Greenhill would also like for more veterinary schools and colleges to take the lead in thinking creatively about recruiting nonwhite students.

As for the AVMA, Greenhill applauds its recent efforts at emphasizing diversity within the profession, but she'd like to see the AVMA's role extend far beyond the symposia. "The AVMA needs to make sure that their members understand that this is something they can and should do in whatever practice area they're engaged," she said.

Greenhill suggested that the AVMA create a staff position dedicated to promoting diversity throughout the profession. (The Executive Board disapproved such a proposal from the AVMA Task Force on Diversity this past November.) Another concrete step is for the AVMA to send representation to the dozen or so national meetings aimed at recruiting minority students into the health professions, Greenhill said.

The good news is the veterinary profession is being compelled to give attention to these issues, according to Greenhill. "We know that more diverse professions are more successful professions ... Certainly within the United States, this is something we have to be compelled to create. We cannot continue to be, according to the Census Bureau, a 93 percent white profession. It's just not going to get us to the promised land."