Teaching Future Veterinarians Important Lessons About Biases

Two courses at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine help students learn professional skills and examine how biases could affect their medical judgment

It’s a valuable lesson in implicit bias. 

About 100 veterinary students sit in a lecture hall at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, waiting for class to begin, when a man strolls in. He has long gray hair and a matching bushy beard. He’s dressed casually and greets everyone with an enthusiastic, “Hey bro!” 

To some, he may appear disheveled. He tells the class that people have called the police on him because they thought he was trespassing on private property. But Gregory Wolfus, D.V.M., V98, is director of the Tufts at Tech Community Veterinary Clinic and associate clinical professor at Cummings School. He’s there to teach the students about implicit bias, or a prejudice they hold of which they may not be aware. What did they think to themselves when they first saw him, before they knew who he was?

It’s exactly the kind of exercise that course director Florina Tseng, D.V.M., wanted for the students in her Diversity and Professional Perspectives (DPP) I and II courses, for first- and second-year veterinary students, respectively.

“The two classes grew out of a course on professionalism, and they began because we felt a need for our students to have basic knowledge of diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice issues, which would set the stage for expectations of professional conduct throughout their time here and after they graduate,” said Tseng, who is the associate dean for diversity, inclusion, equity, and climate at Cummings School. 

During the first year, Tseng discusses systemic racism through a lens of veterinary medicine, including how racism throughout the history of the profession has resulted in a largely white field with Black veterinarians making up just 2% of veterinarians in the United States today. She also talks about different forms of identity—gender, ethnic, religious, etc.—and puts students through exercises that encourage them to discover and challenge their biases. And she outlines anti-racist steps students can take on their own path, from being an ally against racism to being an advocate for the kinds of changes necessary to reduce such issues.

Students also learn about power dynamics and microaggressions—which can be verbal or behavioral and communicate indirect, subtle, or unintentional discrimination—including how they manifest and how they can handle conflicts that can arise because of them. Usually—and hopefully, noted Tseng—microaggressions are not things people do deliberately, and it’s a matter of making people aware that, even if their intent was not to offend or hurt other people, that does not necessarily correlate with the impact their comments or actions had on another person. 

“This is where the class discussions got meatier,” said Jenna Yoshimi, V27. “Talking about racism is tough. One classmate shared that, while working in a veterinary clinic at a time when a lot of anti-Asian hate was going on, some clients refused to see or have their pets touched by Asian members of the staff. I could see that it was difficult for her to bring this up with me in the discussion circle—I'm Japanese. People don't talk about race, and creating that space to acknowledge it is the first step toward greater understanding.”

In another scenario, Yoshimi said, students were asked to envision that they were newly graduated from veterinary school and working in a small animal general practice. In that role, they overhear a receptionist tell a client, “Don't worry about the new grad. I'll make sure you are seen by the lead veterinarian.” The students had to imagine what feelings would come up, how they would manage them, if they would give feedback to the receptionist, and more. If students expressed feelings of discomfort or a desire to avoid such an interaction, the course instructors encouraged them to dig deeper as to why. 

At the end of each course, students write a one-page essay about their thoughts on their implicit biases and how they think they may handle those biases in the future. All the essays are kept confidential, and Tseng says she is often inspired to see how deeply students are thinking about these issues.  

“My essay was about expanding perspectives,” said Sasha Fong, A21, V26. “It's easy for many of us to go about our lives without putting ourselves into someone else's shoes or taking a minute to understand their perspective and realizing that life for each individual is different, and we all come from very different backgrounds. And to be exposed to people that come from all different walks of life and learning their personal stories and really listening to the lessons that they took from that experience I think was really important.”

Tseng said the discussion of racial bias can help the students apply the principles to address other kinds of biases in their second-year course, during which they focus on things that are associated with accommodations, disabilities, and neurodiversity, among other subjects. Accommodations for preclinical students can include extra time to take exams or complete assignments, or seating solutions for students who aren’t able to stand for long lab exercises. 

Accommodations for students on clinical rotations can be more complex. For example, a student may have an allergy to hay that will make their large animal rotation more difficult, or they may need to sit down to be able to participate in a surgery. Tseng encourages students to advocate for themselves and for others, including how to report issues to Tufts Office of Equal Opportunity and the Accommodations team in the school’s Office of Student Affairs.

“We wanted to expose the students to this early on in their careers here, because some are not even aware that they can have some of these accommodations,” Tseng said. “About 20% of our students have an accommodation, so it's good for students to see that they do not provide an unfair advantage. Instead, accommodations bring some students to the same level as non-disabled people and neurotypical people.”

Fong said she was surprised by the breadth of resources available to students, but also by the DPP courses in general. At Cummings School, she anticipated learning core skills like biochemistry and physiology, but did not expect “the important ‘soft skills’ that we all need to have as adults and professionals,” as she called them, to be part of the curriculum. 

“I hope the students take the material seriously and use it to think about other people, how they as individuals are affected by biases, and how they can be an ally both while they’re here and after they graduate,” said Tseng.  

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