Speaker encourages profession to better resemble public it serves
R. Scott Nolen
February 18, 2021
Dr. Priscilla Bowens recalls the time a wide-eyed client asked if she really was a doctor.
In the dog owner’s mind, the Black woman wearing blue scrubs and a white lab coat who was explaining treatment options for the dog’s urinary tract infection could not be a veterinarian because the client had not seen a Black veterinarian before.
“Not everyone knows there are veterinarians of color. Up to this day people tell me, ‘I’ve never met a Black veterinarian before,’” Dr. Bowens said during her Jan. 9 presentation for the AVMA Veterinary Leadership Conference on the need for greater diversity in veterinary leadership and practice ownership.
Unfortunately, the client’s surprise is not entirely unjustified. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics for 2017 show that while Black people accounted for 12% of employed people in the U.S., they comprised just 2% of veterinarians. Human medicine and pharmacology are more diverse professions than veterinary medicine, Dr. Bowens said.
Dr. Bowens cited several justifications for why the veterinary profession should strive to resemble the public it serves. About 37% of Black or African American households owned a pet as of 2016, according to the 2017-18 edition of the AVMA Pet Ownership and Demographics Sourcebook. The Census Bureau estimates the nation will be majority minority by 2045.
Additionally, diversity is good for business. “People are intentionally looking for doctors of color, especially in light of recent events, such as the killing of George Floyd and other issues of racial and social justice,” Dr. Bowens said.
She noted that the AVMA has been collecting data concerning ethnicity and race in the veterinary profession since 2006 yet has so far declined to publish it. “I encourage that information to be released on a regular basis,” Dr. Bowens said. “The membership should know what its makeup is, especially if you’re going to push for change in leadership roles.”
Dr. Bowens showed two photos of AVMA meetings in which most of the people shown were older white men. “Looking at these photos, a lot of veterinarians of color—especially Black veterinarians—are questioning where is their place. Do they belong here? And the answer should be yes,” she said.
One of the barriers to diversity in leadership is a lack of mentors, according to Dr. Bowens, who believes barriers can also be pathways. “We need the people in leadership to be mentors,” she said. “We need you to step up and take people under your wings. We are out there. We’re ready, willing, and able to come through the pipeline to learn about organized veterinary medicine.”
Dr. Bowens is encouraged by commitments to diversity from across the veterinary profession, such as Banfield Pet Hospital’s pledge to hire more minority veterinarians and the establishment of the Commission for a Diverse, Equitable, and Inclusive Veterinary Profession by the AVMA and the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges.
“We are getting there. Slowly but surely, we are getting there, but we have a lot of work to do,” she said.
Barriers to increasing practice ownership among minority veterinarians are more formidable, according to Dr. Bowens, who listed a lack of capital, few ownership pipeline opportunities, and high debt-to-income ratio as important obstacles. According to the 2020 AVMA Report on the Economic State of the Veterinary Profession, new veterinary graduates of Tuskegee University, a historically Black university, have the highest debt-to-income ratio—at 3.6:1 as of 2019—among graduates from all U.S. veterinary colleges and double the national average of 1.8:1.
Dr. Bowens called on veterinary leaders to promote practice ownership among minorities as well as create affordable ownership pathways.