Key to the Future

WA Veterinarian Magazine

by Lisa Parshley, DVM, DACVIM

May/June 2016

At the Washington State University Veterinary School graduation this year, I was granted a glimpse of our profession’s future. Graduations provide perfect miniature profiles. Besides seeing our eager soon-to-be colleagues, these students represent our future. They will define and mark our profession in the days to come, sometimes in ways even they do not yet realize.

One fact stood out this year; we clearly have broken or shattered the female glass ceiling. Like most veterinary graduating classes these days, there were far more women than men. While we have done a great job integrating women, we are still missing a fundamental diversity. If this class represents the future, veterinary medicine will remain predominately white for years to come.

Why is diversity such a worry? Because according to a recent census, by 2020 over half of the children in the United States will belong to a minority group. These children represent potential future veterinarians, veterinary staff, and very importantly, pet families. If we do not start improving our draw to this diverse group we will be left behind as a profession, both financially and as effective animal health care providers.

As much as most of us would like to forget money and just be veterinarians, the reality is that we have to first be a viable business. Basic business 101 would suggest that a successful business, especially the service industry (such as veterinary), requires a knowledge of your market and successful communication of your worth to that market. Effective communication comes from an understanding of the needs and desires of those who populate the market.

In the future, as minorities become the majority we will experience a fundamental shift in our veterinary market from predominantly white to predominantly minority. If we are to remain a relevant profession, we will have to adjust our business model to reflect our changing communities. What is the best way to begin this adjustment? We need to seek a diversity within our staff and our veterinarians.

Diversity in the clinic will improve a basic understanding of people outside our own ethnic or cultural groups through exposure at work. Both of these will improve our ability to communicate to an increasingly diverse clientele in the future.

We all know that good communication is required to ensure that an animal receives adequate medical care, just like compliance for prescribed at-home therapy requires that the family understands the need for these therapies. Thus, effective and good communication ensures both of these will occur for our patients. What defines good communication? It is an ability to speak from a commonality and a place of understanding.

While simple economics suggests that the veterinary profession has to become diverse to stay viable as a business, the ability to communicate makes it essential. Diversity in the clinic will improve a basic understanding of people outside our own ethnic or cultural groups through exposure at work. Both of these will improve our ability to communicate to an increasingly diverse clientele in the future. Improved communication will improve our ability to treat our patients, which is after all why we all became veterinarians.

So how do we become more diverse? An obvious answer is that we attract more minority students to apply for veterinary and veterinary technician schools. Unfortunately, this is simpler said than done. For despite a tremendous effort from our schools, minorities are just not applying, suggesting that minority students do not see our profession as a worthwhile choice for their future career.

Most experts on education suggest that to attract young people to a profession you need to reach them very early in school. To reach them you need to expose them to the possibilities of the profession, such as through school events and school visits. Early contact typically refers to grade school, although exposure in high school may still ignite interest.

If this is true, then the veterinary profession and our professional associations should start considering projects that target schools in minority communities. By reaching out to grade and high schools we might ignite a few children in every class to consider our profession. These projects would also serve to educate the whole class on the worth of our profession, beginning our exposure to minority communities and increasing our diversity. After all, exposure is a two way street.

Whether it makes good business sense or good medicine, veterinary medicine needs to pursue diversity. We have to be aware that in a very short time our communities will no longer be predominantly one ethnic or cultural group. To grow and stay strong we will need to reflect these changes. We have some of the sharpest minds and most creative people in our profession. I have complete faith that we will find a path towards a diversity that is both pleasing and ensures our profession’s future is bright.