A Colombian-Australian with a border collie walks into a vet

25 February 2022
Inaugural, award-winning cultural competence guide for vets
A new generation of Australian veterinarians will be trained in diversity and inclusivity, thanks to a world-first cultural competence guide for the profession developed by University of Sydney experts.

Rebecca's* mother was raised on a remote farm and was absolutely opposed to keeping as animals as pets and allowing them indoors. To her, every domestic animal was a working animal, kept for a purpose. She found it very difficult to understand why people would choose expensive and complex treatment for a pet that would never recover its full function. For some of Rebecca’s rural friends, however, dogs were considered part of the family.

The anecdote is a testament to the importance of a project Associate Professor Jaime Gongora and colleagues have been labouring on for nine years – a world-first effort to embed cultural competence in veterinary science education.

An overview of the project – which aligns with industry recommendations – has just been published in the Journal of Veterinary Medical Education.

Already in use at the University of Sydney’s School of Veterinary Science, the cultural competence curriculum is particularly pertinent to Australia, which has one of the highest rates of pet ownership in the world (70 percent of households) and is also one of the most multicultural nations (a quarter of the population is born overseas).

Veterinarians work with culturally and linguistically diverse teams, clients, and communities. Despite this, there is little focus on this as a competency
Associate Professor Jaime Gongora

“Veterinarians work with culturally and linguistically diverse teams, clients, and communities,” said Associate Professor Gongora, who is Colombian-Australian. “Despite this, there is little focus on this as a competency and in an educational setting. Cultural perspectives on animals and differences in communication, consultation and engagement protocols can influence relationships, impacting animal health, welfare, and research outcomes.”

Depending on a client’s cultural background, animals are a source of companionship, food, entertainment and/or are religiously or culturally significant. For example, in Western cultures, cattle can be seen as a source of food and labour. However, in some Asian, Middle Eastern and African cultures, cattle play an important religious role, and the slaughter of cattle and consumption of beef is generally prohibited. In other cultures, by contrast, cattle can be synonymous with wealth and higher socioeconomic status.

A culturally aware curriculum

A work-in-progress since 2012, the project is embedded across seven units of study. A key component is cultural competence toward Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples. As Associate Dean of Indigenous Strategy in the Faculty of Science, this element is close to Associate Professor Gongora’s heart.

In the curriculum, Aboriginal knowledge holders teach students about the complexity of totems (spiritual emblems with associated caretaking responsibilities) and skin names (names identifying a person's position in a society) and how these relate to responsibility for animals. This knowledge can subsequently be applied in the field.

Co-author, Wurridjuri man Dr Stewart Sutterland, said: “Understanding a little of how my culture differs from the dominant culture of the vet gives insights into how I may view animals; people of authority; and the language I use.”

Another activity involves students reflecting on their and others’ perceptions of animals when interacting with clients, using interviews of people from diverse cultural heritages: Australian Indigenous peoples, people of Muslim, African and Chinese descent, and an Australian farmer.

Unconscious bias against other social, ethnic and gender groups is also addressed in the curriculum, as is effective communication. For example, students learn about the differences between Western and Indigenous communication styles. The latter includes storytelling, yarning circles, and non-verbal language. Deep listening and silence can be also part of their communication.

Project co-author, Associate Professor Sanaa Zaki from the University of Sydney School of Veterinary Science, said: “Bringing awareness to students about unconscious bias and how this can impact their clinical decision making helps them develop empathy and respect for those that view animals differently, and informs how they communicate with culturally diverse clients.”

Free resources

Associate Professor Gongora said: “Informal feedback from students has revealed that the program has fostered rich discussions, respectful interactions and an opportunity for growth through exposure to a diversity of ideas.”

Based on its success, he and his colleague are developing a compendium of locally and internationally available resources on cultural competence for their students, some of which are already publicly available. “What we have done since 2012 is develop a model framework for veterinary schools and other disciplines in animal science that seek to recognise that cultural competence is everyone’s business,” he said.

*Name has been changed to protect privacy.

About Associate Professor Jaime Gongora

Associate Professor Gongora is an academic in wildlife genetics and genomics (including crocodiles, platypuses, oryxes, and peccaries) and Associate Dean, Indigenous, in the Faculty of Science. He is Australian-Colombian who is enthusiastic about diversity and inclusion, and capacity building in less developed countries. He has been honoured with the most prestigious awards in the field for his cultural competence work for vets, including the Office of Learning and Teaching Citation, the international Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges-Iverson Bell Award and the Genetics Society of AustralAsia Award for Excellence in Education.

Declaration: The office of the Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Indigenous Strategy and Services, and the office of the Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Education, University of Sydney supported this work through Indigenous compacts and grants. 

Hero image: Associate Professor Jaime Gongora with his border collie, Mojo.

Loren Smith

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