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K-State Today

August 2, 2011

Understanding differences: Diversity training can help veterinary students in their future practices

Submitted by Communications and Marketing

Understanding a pet owner's cultural, ethnic, religious and other diversity characteristics can help a veterinarian better understand his or her clients and better care for the client's pets, according to a Kansas State University veterinarian.

Ronnie Elmore, associate dean of K-State's College of Veterinary Medicine, is in his third year of teaching the Practicing Veterinary Medicine in a Multicultural Society elective course, an option for veterinary students at K-State that explores how understanding diversity issues can affect veterinary practices.

"Graduates are largely from the millennium generation, so it can be difficult for them to relate to their baby boomer clients," Elmore said.

Race, ethnic background, gender and other characteristics can affect how pet owners relate to their animals, he said. Religious beliefs can also affect an owner's attachment to a pet. For example, different types of animals may hold a powerful meaning for a Native American pet owner, perhaps drastically affecting the owner's attachment or feelings toward the pet, according to Elmore.

Other religious beliefs can greatly affect the relationship between the pet owner and the pet, as well as between the owner and the veterinarian. For this reason, Elmore said he asks a rabbi to visit his class each year to talk about how kosher dietary law can affect Jewish pet owners, as well as how other Jewish practices can affect pets and the veterinary practice, like recognizing the Sabbath Day.

"When veterinarians are scheduling appointments for clients or even making their employees' schedules, they have to think about things like the Sabbath being on a Saturday," Elmore said. "It's just about being practical."

Elmore also emphasized underscoring to veterinary students the importance of being sensitive to the needs of the handicapped population. Individuals who use seeing-eye dogs are invited to his class to demonstrate how vital these animals are to their livelihood.

"If a veterinarian needs to keep a seeing-eye dog in the hospital for several days, how will that owner see?" Elmore asked. "You have to look at things from a different angle and be prepared for these situations as a veterinarian."

Being welcoming to the gay and lesbian community is also important as a veterinarian, Elmore said, which is why he brings in a gay veterinarian from Washington, D.C., to speak to his class about issues with sexual orientation.

To welcome this community, Elmore said he encourages incorporating gay- and lesbian-friendly signage, as well as stating the practice's welcoming nature on any literature or billing paperwork.

"It's all about word-of-mouth advertising," Elmore said. "In the gay and lesbian community, if they know you are welcoming, they'll share that information. It's a network and people will know this is the place to go."

Elmore also suggests that those studying veterinary medicine attend activities or events that are outside of their own culture, as he now requires of students in his class. The overall goal is to understand today's changing demographics.

"You're going to have a diverse clientele, and without understanding, you may not know if you are offending a particular group," Elmore said. "Discovering how differently people look at things will help a veterinarian provide the best service and prepare for a diverse demographic clientele."

Graduating veterinarians never know where they may end up practicing, he said. They may end up in an area where rodeos are popular and thought of as a fun outing for many, while others may find them offensive. It is important to go in with a mindset of understanding.

The bonus for future veterinarians, Elmore said, is that by expanding knowledge and understanding for professional purposes, personal understanding expands as well.

"We learn to get along better with each other," he said. "It's a cultural exchange, a celebration of diversity and living in harmony."