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Seeking greater diversity

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THEY say that if it happens in America it will happen in Britain a few years later. If that is true, a seminar held at the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA)/World Veterinary Association (WVA) congress in Minneapolis this week may be of interest. The seminar, the first of its kind at an AVMA congress, considered ethnic diversity in the veterinary profession. It noted that the proportion of different groups in the profession in the USA was very much lower than in the population as a whole and urged that steps should be taken to put that right. There were, it was argued, very good reasons for doing this, one of which was that the profession could serve society more effectively if its composition reflected that of the population more accurately. With the proportion of different ethnic groups in the US population increasing, this was described by one of the participants as an ethical and demographic imperative. It was also argued that, in the global village, with the world having shrunk in terms of time and space, there was a need for the USA to produce veterinarians who could better understand and interact more fully with the rest of the world. Encouraging greater diversity in the profession would, it was suggested, help make that happen.

Whether things are quite as clear cut as that is, perhaps, a matter for debate, as is how far the American situation can be compared to that in the UK. However, there is no doubt that, in the UK, as in the USA, different ethnic and socioeconomic groups are under-represented in the profession. Various initiatives are being undertaken to widen participation in higher education in the UK but, at this stage, it is a little early to say what their impact will be. There is a need to identify the factors that might be preventing students from a wider range of backgrounds from entering veterinary school and what might be done to encourage more to do so. Some of these issues will be discussed in a session at this year’s BVA Congress, to be held in London from September 30 to October 1, which will consider the efforts being made to widen participation, as well as current demographic trends in the profession in the UK and how the introduction of university ‘top-up’ fees might affect its composition in the future.

Diversity in terms of people is one thing; diversity in terms of professional interests is another. The AVMA/WVA congress was notable in highlighting the breadth of expertise within the veterinary profession and the many ways in which it can contribute to society. Speaking at the opening ceremony, the WVA’s president, Dr Herbert Schneider, noted that the veterinary profession faced a ‘daunting task’ in meeting the challenges of the 21st century; these were ‘vastly different’ from those of previous centuries and veterinarians had a crucial role to play in the control of existing, emerging and re-emerging diseases, world biosecurity, food safety and public health, as well as animal welfare. Their contribution was vital and needed to be better recognised if aspirations for global development and a sustainable environment were to be fulfilled. Similar points were made by Dr Bernard Vallat, director general of the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE), who drew attention to the need to raise awareness of such issues, and called for more involvement of veterinarians in areas such as food safety, administration and research.

Their points, reiterated by others in various international sessions at the congress, were well made, and there is no doubt that the veterinary profession has much to contribute in these areas. At the same time, the congress served to illustrate a potential difficulty as the profession becomes more specialised and more of its members in many countries focus specifically on the problems of companion animals. It may be in the nature of joint meetings of this kind but, with the possible exception of sessions dealing with biosecurity, contingency planning and veterinary public health, which are seen as issues of national security in the USA, the sessions on companion animals were the best attended. No-one would want to underplay the value of the profession’s contribution in this area, particularly in view of the significance of the human-companion animal bond. However, it is important that the profession does not become too narrowly focused and that, taken as a whole, it maintains and develops its interests in other areas. This will be important for the profession and society if the global challenges presenting themselves are to be met.

Quite how the right balance will be achieved remains to be seen and it may be, as Dr Schneider suggested, that there is a need to refocus veterinary training to ensure that the next generation of vets is scientifically equipped to meet the challenges ahead. It could also be that attracting more different types of people into the profession could contribute in itself. The veterinary profession has always been flexible and ready to adapt to changing circumstances. Diversity is needed in terms of people and skills and will be a continuing requirement for the future.

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