Dr Babatunde Balogun, PHAA member and PhD candidate at the Australian Institute of Health Service Management, University of Tasmania.
Since 2000, the World Veterinary Association (WVA) has earmarked the last Saturday of every April to celebrate the veterinary profession. Tagged the World Veterinary Day (WVD), the occasion is used to increase public awareness about the contribution of the profession to animal welfare, food production and safety, and disease surveillance and prevention. The profession also has a role in human health and environmental protection.
This year, the WVA is focusing its attention inwards with the theme, ‘Promoting diversity, equity and inclusiveness in the veterinary profession’. Saturday 29 April will see affiliate national associations and their partners engage in activities that advocate for equity and inclusiveness for veterinary medical practitioners. With the support of HealthforAnimals, a global non-governmental organisation that speaks for the animal health industry, the WVA will also recognise and honour one member association with the most instructive activities in view of this year’s theme. It’s apparent that the WVA is keen on seeing radical progress made to promote diversity in the profession.
The WVA has come a long way since its establishment at the 16th World Veterinary Congress in 1959. Its mission was to focus on not just animal health, but also human and environmental health. It is apt, therefore, that human health is the emphasis for the 23rd WVD.
There is a growing concern about how well veterinarians can realise their individual potentials, “cope with the normal stresses of life, work productively and fruitfully, and [are] able to make a contribution to [their] community,” in line with the World Health Organization’s (WHO) definition of mental health. Veterinarians are predisposed to higher risks of several mental health conditions than the general population in countries including Australia. They also suffer from a higher proportional mortality rate for suicide than their peers in other healthcare professionals and those with similar occupational social standing. Not One More Vet, a non-profit organisation created in 2016, makes mental health a topical issue for more than 26,000 veterinarians globally that it currently serves.
The profession’s demands include a plethora of occupational and non-work-related stressors. For instance, the Australian Veterinary Association (AVA) reported veterinarians often dealt with difficult clients and heavy workload, long hours, and a disrupted work-life balance. In addition, they are burdened by the heavy financial strain of student loan repayment. The summary is that “veterinary medicine is a stressful profession”.
Concerns about equity and inclusiveness in the veterinary profession cannot be wished away. Studies have established a direct link between a sense of inequality and mental health status of individuals. Apart from predisposing people to mental illnesses, it exacerbates existing conditions and makes intervention harder to achieve. Therefore, a concerted effort at addressing inclusiveness in the veterinary profession is a welcome development.
One critical issue is the persistent gender-based income disparity. In Australia, similar to what is seen in other developed countries, the gender pay gap ranges from 5-30% in favour of males, with this having significant implications for lifetime earnings.
Feminisation of the profession has progressed steadily in the last 20 years, which is positive. Today, females outnumber males in Australia, New Zealand, the United States, United Kingdom and Canada. Yet, the top hierarchy of the profession remains dominated by males with no change in sight. Could all these constitute a predisposing factor for why female veterinarians have a higher proportional ratio for suicide than their male counterparts? To achieve diversity and inclusiveness, the profession needs to tackle the obnoxious disparity in wages.
Another challenge relates to the gross deficit of cultural, ethnic, and racial diversity of the profession. From veterinary schools to practice, there is a yawning underrepresentation of certain groups, imposing psychological strain on members due to concerns of inadequate support structure.
In the United States, DiVersity Matters initiative, launched in 2005 by the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges, has barely yielded desirable results. Multicultural Veterinary Medical Association has recently taken a lead role in championing diversity, propagating the achievements of the underrepresented, and inspiring a new generation of barrier-breakers.
A similarly grim picture is painted in Australia where certain groups tend to face a higher entry barrier into the profession. It is, however, noteworthy that Australian universities are seeing growing diversity of their veterinary classrooms. Cultural competence training is also being incorporated into the curriculum of veterinary programmes to prepare graduates for the multi-cultural society. These are steps in the right direction. Earlier this year, The Veterinary Kaleidoscope Summit discussed the relevance of diversity and inclusiveness in workplaces and communities. Fingers are crossed in anticipation of tangible outcomes from the Summit.
As the veterinary doctors celebrate their profession today, we hope it does not end up as a ritualistic wingding. A diverse and inclusive veterinary profession is crucial to our society’s wellbeing. Veterinarians have played vital roles in managing myriad global public health challenges, including the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s imperative that diversity and inclusiveness are embraced, as diverse teams are better equipped at solving complex problems.
The public health community stands to gain immensely from a diverse and inclusive veterinary workforce. Veterinary science’s applications for the physical, mental, and social wellbeing of humans and conserving the environment are an indispensable component of public health activities. Looking ahead, veterinarians are expected to use their multidisciplinary professional skills to drive biomedical research, uphold food safety, sustain food security, and promote environmental protection in addition to their core clinical work of animal disease prevention and treatment.
Australia’s public health community should have open channels to actively engage with veterinarians on relevant public health policy debates and formulation. The One Health initiative of the WHO is a classical platform for such engagements. Current public health issues such as antimicrobial resistance and the imminent Australian Centre for Disease Control provide opportunities for collaboration. Likewise, the public health community should openly support ongoing reforms to reposition the veterinary practice and other health-related disciplines. The AVA recently ratified its policy document on “safeguarding and improving the mental health” of veterinarians. Public health professionals should back these efforts, and take similar steps to protect and promote the mental health of their members.
Follow Dr Balogun on Twitter: @tundeomobalogun
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