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Opinion: Pets come with people. Veterinarians need diversity training too

While others may see veterinarian diversity classes as an unnecessary requirement, they are absolutely needed because vets work with people just as much as pets

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A veterinarian holds two dogs, one in each arm.

Veterinarians are required by Utah to have one hour of diversity training per two-year licensing cycle. This helps foster equality, respect and inclusion within the profession.

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Ben Shelton takes a very dim view of the new diversity education requirement for Utah veterinarians in his article “Should your veterinarian take a diversity class?

His argument against the new requirement shows a clear lack of understanding of both the requirement itself and the practice of veterinary medicine in general.

The exact wording of the new requirement as stated in the Division of Professional Licensing’s regulations is that “At least one hour of the 24 hours (of continuing education credits required for Utah veterinarians every two years) shall be devoted to topics that improve diversity, equity and inclusion in the veterinary workplace for clients, employees and recruitment. Topics may relate to race, ethnicity, religion, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, and disability, and may include issues such as: unconscious bias, cross-cultural communication, and access and legal aspects of anti-discrimination”.

Shelton makes the argument that since our veterinary patients are not human, issues related to the diverse backgrounds of animal owners are irrelevant. He seems to overlook the very real fact that every client who brings an animal to the veterinarian as well as every veterinary clinic employee are, in fact, human. As animals are unable to discuss their symptoms and participate in making their own health care decisions, effective communication between veterinarians and their clients is absolutely critical for an animal’s successful treatment outcome.

Utah’s population is rapidly growing, indicating a future whose demographics will only become increasingly more diverse. Cross-cultural communication has been widely shown to impact the quality of medical care in human patients and there is no reason to believe that those same factors do not impact veterinary patients as well.

In fact, many studies show that pet owners with disabilities, who are mixed-race, or are part of the LGBTQ+ community have limited access to veterinary care that is culturally competent and that these barriers can hinder pets’ overall well-being and long-term health.

Utah’s large animal and food animal medicine sector, which employs a large number of Hispanic workers, also stands to benefit from such training. In these ways, it is clear that the new requirements will help Utah’s veterinarians better serve all animals and their caretakers around the state.

The new requirement will also help the veterinary profession itself. The veterinary profession remains overwhelmingly white (over 89% of veterinarians in the U.S. are non-Hispanic white, compared with 60% of the overall population). Of current veterinary medical students nationwide, only 2.5% are Black

Addressing issues related to diversity, equity and inclusion plays an important role in helping people of all backgrounds, abilities and races feel welcome in the profession.

As to the requirement itself, the rule was done in such a way that it creates little to no burden on veterinarians. 

The one hour of diversity training in every two-year licensing cycle is included in, not in addition to, the 24 hours of continuing education already required to maintain a license to practice veterinary medicine in Utah. It can also be from any provider, not just approved veterinary programs as are other continuing education requirements. To spend one hour in every two years discussing topics like unconscious bias, cross-cultural communication and improvements to interactions with those with disabilities is not a burden on any licensed professional and frankly, is something that everyone would benefit from.

Veterinary students in the Utah State/Washington State veterinary medicine program currently receive courses on effective client communication. It makes sense that this sort of education continues as they progress through their careers.

As Shelton correctly stated, veterinarians have a vested interest in furthering their education long after they graduate veterinary school. They have a desire to provide the best possible treatment options and medical knowledge to clients and their animals.

As discussed, however, Shelton is gravely mistaken to think that the veterinary industry is only about the animals. As many veterinary students were warned before applying to veterinary school, “You shouldn’t go into veterinary medicine if you don’t like people.”

Veterinary medicine relies on quality interaction between humans and the new requirement for diversity, equity and inclusion training for Utah veterinarians is an excellent step towards further improving access and communication within the profession. 

Dr. Drew L. Allen serves on the Utah Veterinary Physician Licensing Board and participated in writing the rules on diversity, equity and inclusion education for veterinarians. His views expressed are his own and does not represent an official statement by the licensing board.

Sierra A. Lopez is a second-year student at Utah State University’s School of Veterinary Medicine.