AVMA News

List of Black diplomates sparks discussion, action

Dr. Coretta Patterson took on a passion project to highlight and encourage diversity in veterinary specialty colleges
January 16, 2023

As diversity, equity, and inclusion continue to be a point of emphasis, a few veterinary specialty colleges have taken on the work in their own way.

One diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine, Dr. Coretta Patterson, group medical director for research development at BluePearl Specialty and Emergency Pet Hospital, had an idea to honor a colleague that turned into something bigger.

For Black History Month last year, Dr. Patterson wanted to recognize Dr. Erick Mears—a fellow Black diplomate in small animal internal medicine and a colleague at BluePearl—because she and he had shared mentors and similar career paths.

Drs. Carla L. Gartrell, dean of Midwestern University College of Veterinary Medicine; Ruby Perry, dean of Tuskegee University College of Veterinary Medicine; and Coretta Patterson attend a meeting of the National Association for Black Veterinarians. Drs. Gartrell and Perry have been important mentors to Dr. Patterson during her career.  (Photos courtesy of Dr. Coretta Patterson)

She reached out to the ACVIM to help determine when Dr. Mears earned board certification, which turned out to be in 1996, and also was curious how many other Black specialists have earned board certification from the ACVIM.

Historically, the ACVIM has not collected racial demographic information from its members, who currently number more than 3,000, so Dr. Patterson took it upon herself to compile a list of names of Black diplomates. She then passed the list on to Marian Tuin, ACVIM membership manager, to help confirm the names.

Without official records to work from, the effort has involved Dr. Patterson reaching out to colleagues, acquaintances, and former mentors. She also compiled the names of Black diplomates of the American College of Veterinary Dermatology and the American College of Veterinary Ophthalmology. Everyone on the list earned board certification, so a few honorary diplomates are not included (see sidebar).

Strength in numbers

Dr. Patterson credits her path toward specialization to Patricia Lowrie, former director of the Women’s Resource Center at Michigan State University and assistant to the dean at the MSU College of Veterinary Medicine. In 1978, Lowrie founded the MSU’s Vetward Bound program, which is designed to recruit and assist students underrepresented in veterinary medicine and interested in pursuing careers in the profession.

Dr. Patterson attended Vetward Bound while in undergraduate studies, between her sophomore and junior years. She had other mentors along the way, too, including Drs. Carla L. Gartrell, Barbara L. Kitchell, and Ruby Perry.

Dr. Patterson found out from her research that the first Black veterinary specialist with the ACVIM was likely Dr. Edward Braye, who became a diplomate in large animal internal medicine in 1979. The next Black diplomate wasn’t until 1991: Dr. Jody Lulich, a diplomate in small animal internal medicine who is now a professor of internal medicine at the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine.

“There’s a huge gap that unfortunately is lost,” Dr. Patterson said. “When you look at the list, all of us could fit on a Greyhound bus together.”

Dr. Patterson teaches anatomy to preveterinary students at the University of Nevada-Reno as they dissect a cat. She said she compiled a list of Black diplomates of veterinary specialty colleges because “it’s important from a historical perspective to honor the past and look where we’ve gone and how we can make veterinary medicine and veterinary specialties appealing.”

There are 22 AVMA-recognized veterinary specialty organizations comprising 47 distinct veterinary specialties. Overall, there are more than 14,500 active veterinarians who have been awarded diplomate status in one or more of these specialty organizations after completing rigorous postgraduate training, education, and examination requirements.

There are 58 Black diplomates on the list that Dr. Patterson has compiled. While not exhaustive, it is the most comprehensive detailing of Black diplomates out there.

“There’s this untapped resource we don’t work on,” Dr. Patterson said. “If we look at human health care and know that human health care suffers when there are not enough providers patient can relate to based on a cultural and social basis, that’s likely true in veterinary medicine, also.”

The number of veterinary students from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups is higher than ever before at 23.2%, according to the American Association of Veterinary Medical Colleges. But the pipeline to clinical postgraduate training programs hasn’t seen as much progress.

According to data from the American Association of Veterinary Clinicians, the Veterinary Internship and Residency Matching Program in 2022 had 2,094 applicants and 986 participating programs—603 internship programs and 383 residency programs—with an overall match rate of 54.2%. Black applicants only accounted for 2.9% of the total applicants, compared with 70.2% for white applicants. In 2021, Black applicants accounted for 2.5% of the total applicants.

Further, in 2022, only 18 Black applicants matched with internships out of 1,020 total applicants matched—or 1.8% of matches—and 11 matched with residencies out of 406 applicants matched—or 2.7% of matches.

Making changes to make progress

In mid-December, a group of veterinary specialists representing the AAVC put out a paper on the current state of diversity in postgraduate training programs and recommendations on best practices. Among the recommendations for intern and resident selection committees is to avoid selecting candidates on the basis of their seeming fit with the program but instead to use consistent criteria to assess each candidate.

“Using data gathered over time and in accordance with society’s ever-expanding awareness of best practices, the AAVC will continue to assess and revise the VIRMP application process with the goal of allowing each candidate to effectively highlight their strengths and goals,” according to the authors.

The authors wrote, “We support the continued compilation and assessment of diversity of the student body, faculty, house officers and the staff of each institution.”

A JAVMA article published in the August print edition outlined other ways to support diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging to strengthen the veterinary profession. These approaches include certificate and training programs such as the AVMA's Brave Space Certificate Program and, more recently, the AVMA’s Journey for Teams, a multiyear educational initiative to help veterinary workplaces become more diverse, equitable, and inclusive.

Affinity groups with a focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion can help, too, said Dr. Dondrae Coble, a co-author of the August article and a Black diplomate of the American College of Laboratory Animal Medicine. For example, the Dr. J.H. Bias Black Affinity Group at The Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine is an all-inclusive affinity group formed to support Black students during their veterinary studies and to honor the legacy of Dr. James H. Bias, the first African American graduate of the college. The group aims to create a comfortable space for Black students to thrive as developing leaders as well as to create a unified voice and to foster inclusivity. The group is one of several affinity groups formed at the OSU veterinary college.

Dr. Dondrae Coble, attending veterinarian and chief of the comparative medicine branch at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, teaches a middle school student how to perform a physical examination. Learning to use a stethoscope to auscult the guinea pig was a component of the process. (Photos courtesy of Dr. Dondrae Coble)

Dr. Coble said the group’s purpose is also to help members visualize what successful careers in the profession look like by seeing and hearing from those who have gone before them.

“Increasing the diversity of general practitioners and veterinary specialists will be instrumental,” he said.

Dr. Coble grew up in Greensboro, North Carolina, and attended North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, a historically Black university, as an undergraduate, just as his parents, aunts, and uncles did before him. Between his sophomore and junior year, he participated in the summer enrichment and reinforcement program at Tuskegee University School of Veterinary Medicine, which solidified his interests in the school.

Dr. Tracy Hanner, the first Black graduate at North Carolina State University College of Veterinary Medicine and the only one in the 40-member class of 1986, was Dr. Coble’s mentor while he was at NC A&T. Dr. Hanner was the adviser for the program in laboratory animal science at the time. Dr. Coble credits Dr. Hanner for having an outsize impact on the recruitment of underrepresented students to veterinary medicine, particularly laboratory animal medicine.

After Dr. Coble received his veterinary degree from Tuskegee, he was on a path toward small animal surgery, completing an internship at BluePearl in Tampa. He worked at a specialty hospital in North Carolina for three years before applying for a residency at Emory University. Dr. Michael J. Huerkamp, director of the university’s Division of Animal Resources, was his mentor. From there, Dr. Coble went to The Ohio State University before becoming the attending veterinarian at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio. He is currently the attending veterinarian and chief of the Comparative Medicine Branch at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

He noted: “In laboratory animal medicine, several mentors and persons of color have been working within this field, and that mentor-mentee relationship still exists to this day. It’s something that has been strong to attract and maintain some diversity in this specialty.”

Dr. Coble is the previous chair of the ACLAM Equity and Inclusion Task Force, formed in 2020. The task force was formed after the specialty college made a statement condemning racism and supporting inclusion. The task force has been charged with identifying the current state of diversity, equity, and inclusion within the specialty college. Members of the task force are collecting demographic data on ACLAM diplomates in collaboration with the ACLAM committee on workforce and demographics.

The task force, in collaboration with the Vivarium Operational Excellence Network, held its second Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Happy Hour, titled “Conversation With a Purpose,” at the 2022 ACLAM Forum. Over 70 attendees participated in two hours of focused conversation at the catered event.

Prior to the forum, the ACLAM board developed the five-year strategic plan for the college. One of the pillars of the strategic plan is diversity, equity, and inclusion, and the task force will remain intact through the five years of the plan. The specialty college is seeking to position itself as a leader in veterinary medicine with respect to diversity, equity, and inclusion.

“It’s something we’ve had discussions about, collecting quantitative data regarding diversity,” Dr. Coble said. “Obtaining qualitative data is important as well. How do members feel? Do they feel welcome? We’re looking into that as well and using a consultant to help our college obtain and decipher info as well.”

Moving forward

The AVMA is working to update and improve the Association’s ability to capture demographic data about its members, including race, ethnicity, gender, and employment information.

Meanwhile, Dr. Patterson plans to present the list of Black diplomates of the ACVIM, ACVD, and ACVO at the National Association of Black Veterinarians’ meeting this coming June. She said the American College of Veterinary Surgeons is working on its own list, spearheaded by Dr. Anita Stampley, the first Black boarded veterinary surgeon. The American College of Veterinary Pathology does not have a list, but Dr. Patterson said that college would have a good number of Black diplomates.

Empowering Males to Build Opportunities for Developing Independence, or EMBODI, is a national program aimed at supporting Black males that is sponsored by Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc., a public-service organization. Dr. Coble participated in a career day and interactive presentation with students as part of that program.

Dr. Patterson continues to add to her list when possible, reaching out to other specialty colleges for information. Colleagues also have reached out to her, including Dr. Aida Vientós-Plotts, a Puerto Rican veterinarian who is attempting to get information for Latino diplomates.

Dr. Patterson continues to pursue encouraging diversity, equity, and inclusion in the profession in other ways as well, including giving talks at BluePearl on microaggressions.

“I say, if a location does not have enough doctors at a hospital and there is a large population we don’t appeal to because they don’t feel comfortable, this is a lost opportunity,” Dr. Patterson said.

She continued, “It’s important from a historical perspective to honor the past and look where we’ve gone and how we can make veterinary medicine and veterinary specialties appealing.”

A version of this article appears in the February 2023 print issue of JAVMA.