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Even though households of all backgrounds enjoy the company of their canine and feline companions, the veterinary profession continues to lack in the area of diversity. In fact, in 2013, The Atlantic dubbed the position of veterinarian as the whitest job in America with over 90% identifying as white.
Why is this the case? And why does this matter? We dive into the reasons for the lack of diversity in veterinary medicine, how it affects the industry, and how it can become more inclusive.
According to the 2019 Census Bureau, approximately 89% of veterinarians are white (non-hispanic), making that the predominant race or ethnicity in the field that is far exceeding the second highest ethnicity, Asian, at 4.2%. The category for two or more ethnicities make up 2.3%, with Black, Indigenous, Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander, and other Native, all making up less than 2%.
Looking ahead to future demographics, the most recent statistics from a 2021 American Association of Veterinary Colleges report, reveal the demographics of students across the U.S. Veterinary Medicine colleges closely resemble that of the report from the 2019 Census Bureau. According to the data, 80% identify as White, 6% LatinX/Hispanic, 4% Asian, 4% multi-racial/multi-ehtnic, 2% Black, 2% unknown, and less than 1% identifying as foreign national, Indigenous, or Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander.
For veterinarians of color in the field, the diversity gap is felt even greater. Dr. Cherice Roth, Chief Veterinary Officer at Fuzzy, has reflected on her experience moving from an ethnically diverse health sciences center to veterinary school. Dr. Roth said, “On the first day of orientation, I saw one Black man and one other Black woman in a class of over 120 students. The lack of diversity did not sway my focus to become a veterinarian.”
One of the primary reasons for a lack of diversity in the profession is a lack of adequate recruitment of students of color into veterinary colleges. Colleges and recruiters need to present veterinary medicine as a career option and a path to get there. Currently, the majority of underrepresented high school students that are interested in the health field usually select another program in human medicine that they find more attractive.
Children and teens are not seeing themselves represented in the industry. If a student has never seen a professional that looks like them represented in a space, it may be hard to envision that as an option for themselves.
According to a survey conducted on the campus of Kansas State University, 50% of current veterinary students made the decision to become a veterinarian before they were 13 years old. And when asked who was most influential in their decision to become a veterinarian, 41% listed a veterinarian whom they greatly admired.
High school counselors often report that students of color find that a lack of people who look like them in the profession is a huge deterrent. And once in the industry, veterinarian students and practicing professionals may face challenges being in a nearly all-white environment like language barriers, cultural differences, fear of discrimination or biases to list a few.
When choosing an area of health, finances and projected income may be a bigger deciding factor for a student coming from a lower income family than a student coming from a more affluent background. Furthermore, taking on positions shadowing or interning with veterinarians in the field without compensation may not be an option for many students.
Pet ownership also plays an important role in a student’s interest in veterinary medicine. Students whose families have never owned a pet growing up are unlikely to consider or seek admission to a veterinary college. In a 2016 survey, the highest rate of pet ownership was seen amongst White households (64.7%) and Hispanic/Latino households (61.4%). The lowest rate of pet ownership was found in Black households (36.9%). In addition, higher-income households were more likely to own a pet than lower-income households.
According to a study, virtually all students currently enrolled in veterinary medical colleges throughout the U.S. have owned pets, livestock, or both. And most admissions committees at veterinary colleges state that substantial animal experience, which usually includes animal ownership, is an important admissions consideration.
The majority of people will argue on a basic level that diversity is important. A diverse and inclusive environment offers different perspectives, new insights, and new ideas. For the veterinary industry, this could welcome new ways to practice medicine, modernization, increase efficiency in practices, and increase retention for BIPOC talent.
One of the biggest problems the veterinary industry faces that can be solved with a focus on diversity is the shortage of practicing veterinarians. The world needs more vets! Currently there is a disproportionate number of households adopting pets to the number of veterinarians entering the field annually. Research suggests that there will be an estimated shortage of 15,000 veterinarians in the U.S. by 2030.
A broader talent pool would be able to provide more care to underserved communities. Cost, lack of education, and lack of access are some reasons pets may go years without receiving adequate care. Veterinarians who are part of the communities they serve would be better able to connect with pet parents where language or cultural barriers were once obstacles. This could make a huge difference in the way animals are cared for.
Acknowledging the lack of diversity and creating awareness are two important components for laying the foundation to diversify the profession. There needs to be more research and data reporting on the gaps in the industry. And partnerships created between veterinary schools, practices, organizations, and leaders who are focused on diversity, equity and inclusion. Being color aware, not color blind is essential to creating meaningful change.
So many BIPOC veterinarians are used to being unicorns in the field. Creating spaces both digitally and in-person to connect, share stories, resources, and be seen, reinforces the veterinary industry is a place for everyone.
Many BIPOC students aren’t aware of veterinarians that look like them. This is one of the reasons Dr. Roth wrote, “What’s a Real Doctor?” a children's book that explores important perceptions of the medical field and informs on what veterinarians actually do that makes them a real doctor. The book aims to plant the seed that a Black female with mixed-race children can be a doctor and that a veterinarian is a doctor.
Dr. Roth shares, “In thinking about how to improve our representation in veterinary medicine, I say we must start early. While my path to veterinary medicine was nontraditional, I didn’t consider the career earlier because I was never exposed to veterinarians as a child.”
Industries that embrace diversity see higher rates of innovation. More experts in the field, more research, more ideas, and more leaders to help implement those ideas.
Innovation in pet health will attract more diverse talent, Dr. Roth shares:
Telehealth in particular is a way for veterinarians to have virtual relationships with their patients to triage and recommend treatment for acute and chronic conditions and minor illnesses. Digital tools can make data more inclusive, reach new populations, improve treatments, and personalize care. Services that reach underserved communities will not only provide care for new patients but provide an opportunity to connect and attract new and diverse talent. Companies like Fuzzy Pet Health are committed to changing the way pet care is viewed and delivered through technology.
Recruitment in high schools is essential. Students interested in the health field and animal care need to see that veterinarian medicine is an option.
Programs and resources students would benefit from include:
Direct school visits
There needs to be communication and connection between schools, programs, veterinary schools, practices, clinics, and hospitals. Pipeline programs are essential for bridging the diversity gap. The line of connected systems beginning at an early age, prepares students to enter a profession. This can also expose a diverse group of students who may not have grown up with animals, however, have a love and interest for them, the opportunity to explore veterinary medicine as a potential career path.
It is unrealistic to think that changing the racial and ethnic makeup of an industry will happen in a few years. Diversity has to be a choice and a commitment. Reach out to an organization, join a panel, take action. It’s worth it to make the veterinary profession a more inclusive space to deliver better care for the ones that need it – the pets.