Feb
20
2008

As the U.S. consumer base becomes increasingly diverse, a growing number of businesses are trying to market to nonwhites. Diversity management is a core business practice and a lucrative one at that, according to Lisa Greenhill, MPA, during her lecture titled “The Economics of Diversity” at the North American Veterinary Conference in January.

Greenhill pointed to companies that have reaped the rewards of courting a diverse clientele. Strategies include a burgeoning line of ethnic flavors from Hershey’s, Pantene hair care options that suit a variety of consumers, and multilingual salespeople at Verizon Wireless stores. From a profit perspective, these efforts have paid off, Greenhill said. Verizon stores where employees speak different languages earned 20 percent more than stores where English was the only language spoken. 

“Diversity in business is definitely a good thing,” she added, “but in veterinary medicine, diversity issues have been relatively ignored. The profession remains overwhelmingly white.” The U.S. Census Bureau shows that the profession was 92 percent white in 2000.

In 2003, an article in The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education referred to veterinary medicine as the most segregated profession, and in 2006, another article in the same publication said that few gains had been made.

Also in 2006, the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges reported that the applicant pool to veterinary colleges was 76 percent white. Hispanic applicants outnumbered African Americans applicants, representing 6 percent and 2 percent of the total, respectively. 

On a practical level, lack of diversity in clinical practice will become increasingly problematic as the demographics of pet owners change, Greenhill said. 

Market research shows that by 2050 the white population of the United States will start to decline in number while Hispanic, Asian, and multiracial groups will increase.

The DiversityInc website reports that white people will become a minority, representing 47 percent of the population, compared to 67 percent in 2005. Nonwhite purchasing power is expected to reach $4.3 trillion — or 32 percent of overall spending — by 2045.

To accommodate population shifts, changes can be seen at many levels. For example, Greenhill referenced an increase in foreign language classes at schools across the nation and an increase in English-as-a-second-language offerings. 

For Evan Morse, DVM, the link between economics and diversity is clear. He was recruited out of college in 1968 by David Rickards, a white veterinarian in Cincinnati, Ohio, to serve a growing African American clientele. 

When he joined the Cincinnati practice, “African American clients started coming [to the clinic] in droves,” Morse said, noting, “[The clinic] had very few African American clients before my arrival.” 

He has delivered several presentations on diversity and profitability and acknowledges that diversity is a “loaded term that refers to the building of inclusive environments and the management of human differences.” He said the term applies to people who have not traditionally been considered part of the client and workforce majority.

A recent paper published by the Rand Corporation suggests this is true in human medicine as well, and patients choose doctors of their own ethnicity.

Successful diversity programs are being implemented across North America — and the concept has been addressed in veterinary literature — but the conversation is somewhat new to private practitioners, said Pat Lowrie, founder of Vetward Bound, a diversity program at Michigan State University.

Within academic circles, the concept of diversity and its economic implications has been actively discussed since 1978, when the Vetward Bound program, which reaches out to potential students, was created. 

“Every veterinary school has an interest [in diversity,]” she said, “but some have been more successful putting together sustainable programs.” She believes that Vetward Bound is the oldest sustainable program in North America. 

Within private practice, Lowrie has seen more professionals who are interested in fostering diverse workplaces. 

“We are just getting to the point of organizational or systems conversations,” she said, in reference to the participation of the AVMA and several state Veterinary Medical Associations — including Ohio, Michigan, and the Nine States group — that have invited her to speak about diversity issues. 

Lowrie predicts that diversity within the veterinary profession at the clinic level will result from demographic shifts.

“We don’t have a cadre of professionals at this point who are able to turn that ship,” she said. “I am starting to see interest [and hear questions like] ‘how might we help?’ but the yield won’t be as quick as we need it [to be].”

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