Encouraging diversity and sustainability in veterinary medicine will serve society and make your practice more attractive to new graduates

Anneka Christie School of Veterinary Medicine, University of California-Davis, Davis, CA

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Stephanie Elliott School of Veterinary Medicine, University of California-Davis, Davis, CA

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Ruth Goins School of Veterinary Medicine, University of California-Davis, Davis, CA

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Erin A. Hisey School of Veterinary Medicine, University of California-Davis, Davis, CA

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Megan Sorensen School of Veterinary Medicine, University of California-Davis, Davis, CA

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Kristen Stucker School of Veterinary Medicine, University of California-Davis, Davis, CA

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Scarlett L. Varney School of Veterinary Medicine, University of California-Davis, Davis, CA

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As veterinary students and future graduates, we believe that improving the professional and environmental sustainability and the diversity of our industry is the way forward. Our career choices will most certainly reflect these values. A veterinary culture that incorporates diversity, environmental sustainability, and a future-focused mindset will benefit staff members, clients, the community, and our future businesses. There is evidence that a diverse team is more open-minded, efficient, and ultimately more profitable.1 Unfortunately, however, though our profession has progressed in many ways, the current diversity statistics of our industry seem discouragingly static. This should not be considered acceptable if we, as a profession, want to evolve along with society. The majority of the communities we serve do not see themselves represented—racially, ethnically or socioeconomically—by the doctors they entrust with their animals. Reflecting changing community values and demographics will help build lasting positive client relationships. If we can support shared social and environmental values, our clients are likely to be more loyal to our businesses.2 As we serve at the forefront of human, animal, and environmental interactions, veterinarians are in the ideal position to guide the rest of society.

Overall, we, as a profession, fail to address the diversity of the communities we serve, which is professionally unsustainable. Sustainability—that is, the endurance and longevity of our profession—can be facilitated in many ways, from incorporating diversity to promoting environmentally conscientious behaviors in our practices; these goals can be accomplished by being proponents of biocultural diversity. Biocultural diversity is defined as the interplay between biological, cultural, and linguistic diversity, which are all interrelated and believed to have coevolved over time.3 For example, linguistic diversity plays a key role in communicating traditions and values, including conventional environmental knowledge, which has been gained through a complex evolution of the human-environment relationship.4 Healing that is rooted in community developed practices has been a cornerstone of ethnoveterinary medicine for millennia. As western culture continues to dominate, traditional knowledge like this is being lost, leading to “cultural blind spots.” These blind spots occur when the current beliefs and practices associated with the prevailing culture cannot sufficiently address societal problems.4 Therefore, our profession needs both culturally and linguistically diverse members to help gain new perspectives in, not only dealing with continued environmental challenges, but also diversity and sustainability challenges in veterinary medicine.

Veterinary medicine is one of the least racially diverse professions. In the 2020 Bureau of Labor Statistics report, 91.9% of veterinarians identified as “White,” 7.9% as “Hispanic or Latino,” 5.7% as “Asian,” and, likely due to rounding, 0.0% as “Black or African American”.5 One reason for the current disparities is a lack of visibility. When young minorities look for role models in the veterinary profession, there are few examples for them to look up to. Socioeconomic status is another major barrier in the profession.6 A 2017 article from the American Psychological Association indicated that minority racial groups were more likely to experience multiple kinds of poverty—monetary, educational, and healthcare for example—than white people.7 Thus, at each step along their educational journey, minorities face additional impediments and difficulties compared to their white counterparts. The high and rising cost of veterinary education presents yet another hurdle to these already systemically disenfranchised groups.

Very little has been done to successfully address these gaps and help increase diversity in a long-term and meaningful way.8 Black veterinarians’ personal stories confirm that there is active and personal discrimination within veterinary medicine. Anecdotes from minority students who feel like “outsiders’’ in school reinforce that our profession must strive for diversity, given that we serve a diverse population of owners.6 Once in practice, these feelings of isolation and overtly racist experiences do not stop. For example, as the only Black veterinarian in the clinic, Dr. A (anonymized for privacy) was constantly questioned by a white technician who worked in the clinic. They always asked a white doctor to verify Dr. A's medical decisions and needed constant reminders from Dr. A to complete tasks. The treatment this technician displayed to Dr. A was not exhibited to any other doctor, technician, or assistant.9 While the lack of ethnic and racial diversity in veterinary medicine has been acknowledged, the reality of these situations means that this profession needs to do more at all levels to act as a support system for Black and minority veterinarians and students. Creating a more inclusive environment for our underrepresented colleagues will result in a more harmonious work environment and thus more functional and profitable practices.

Since 1985, women have outnumbered men as veterinary students, but it was not until 2011 that female AVMA members outnumbered their male counterparts.10 Due to the reduction of admissions discrimination, more visible female veterinarians as role models, and the increased use of chemical restraint in large animal medicine,11 the number of female veterinary applicants and practitioners is higher than it has ever been. In the 1980s, male and female attendance at veterinary schools was about even, but by 1999, the male applicant pool was down to around 28%, and has since dipped even further.11 As of 2017, males made up only 38% of total veterinarians.1 Despite this, male veterinarians hold most of the leadership, faculty, and practice ownership positions in the field.12 Diversity within the field, then, has as much to do with post-graduation positions as it does with veterinary student populations; indeed, the field as a whole has demonstrated a decades-long delay in diversity change, and we are only just beginning to realize the effects. Actively addressing and acknowledging the racial and gender inequalities within practices will appeal to the younger generation of veterinary graduates.

In addition to racial and ethnic diversity, biocultural diversity encompasses environmental sustainability as well. Our profession plays a vital role in the interactions among humans, animals, and our shared environment, and the environmental side is frequently forgotten.13 Additionally, environmentally friendly practices can be good for more than just our conscience. For example, minimizing our pharmaceutical use decreases pollution by those products, protecting public and environmental health. Making sustainable changes can boost hospital morale, improve long term safety, and increase profitability. New graduates entering the profession will be attracted to practices with sustainability initiatives. As a starting point, creating an environmental task force among the staff could allow everyone to get involved in this mission and provide a foundation for change. Overall, practicing with environmental sustainability in mind means more efficiency and increases the bottom line. There are many small achievable actions that can have an additive effect and result in significant positive change.

Despite the barriers that our profession faces, there are ways that we can work to further increase diversity and sustainability within our profession. As veterinarians, our responsibilities include those to our patients, our clients, and the community we serve. Integrating sustainable and inclusive practices into our profession attracts new talent, enhances employee retention and satisfaction, improves the bottom line, encourages client business, and most importantly is our obligation as health professionals and human beings. Embracing biocultural diversity ultimately means that an array of voices can be brought together to provide a variety of perspectives on how to solve our profession's issues—the lack of diversity, the rising cost of veterinary school, mental wellness, and sustainability within veterinary medicine. Biocultural diversity also increases available knowledge4 and fosters a stronger sense of solidarity in combating our current problems and any future dilemmas that will arise. We, as a veterinary community, are in an important position to lead the way on these issues to not only improve our profession, but our society as a whole.

Acknowledgments

No third-party funding or support was received in connection with this publication. The authors declare that there were no conflicts of interest.

The contents of this commentary are the views of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the University of California-Davis School of Veterinary Medicine.

We would like to thank Dr. Jonna Mazet for her encouragement, support, and guidance.

References

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