Mexican university seeks AVMA accreditation

COE nod could usher Mexican veterinarians into the United States

Published: September 22, 2008
By Jennifer Fiala

Mexico City — The National Autonomous University of Mexico (UnAM) in Mexico City seeks American accreditation of its veterinary medical program — a gold standard that could ease the entry of Hispanic veterinarians into the United States.

This month, the Council on Education (COE), the American Veterinary Medical Association’s (AVMA) accrediting arm, plans to evaluate the $20 million in improvements made at the UnAM veterinary program since the group’s last visit, including the 15,000-square-foot teaching hospital built by Banfield, The Pet Hospital, in 2005.

A formal request for a COE site visit — a preliminary step in the accreditation process — comes from Dr. Francisco Trigo, dean of the UnAM program, who sent the group video showcasing the completion of curriculum and facilities upgrades designed to meet conditions issued by COE officials during a consultative site visit in 2006.

According to Trigo, UnAM students receive a high-quality education on par with U.S. programs. Yet at its foundation exist major differences. UnAM’s six-year program is virtually free for the near 2,800 students enrolled, although just 60 percent of each class graduates. Like some other AVMA-accredited institutions outside of the United States, UnAM students enter the program following completion of their high-school education.

“If everything goes right, the visit will take place during the first semester of 2009,” Trigo says. “For our students, this could mean training and jobs in the United States. We could be the first non English-speaking program recognized by AVMA.”

COE officials including Dr. David Granstrom, director of AVMA’s Education and Research Division, declined to comment on the UnAM program or the accreditation process. Yet barring U.S. immigration requirements, approval from COE would allow UnAM graduates to skip educational equivalency tests that traditionally prove financial huge hurdles for Mexican veterinarians, like AVMA’s $6,000 Educational Commission for Foreign Veterinary Graduates (ECFVG) program.

Instead, UnAM graduates would sit for the same national and state board examinations posed to U.S. veterinary graduates, offering easier access to a job market that’s ripe for bilingual veterinarians, Trigo says. 

“Mexican students don’t have any debt; education is quite cheap, heavily subsidized by federal and state governments,” Trigo explains. “The job market in Mexico is not as wide and as profitable as in the United States. Students coming out with good grades will get good jobs here, but veterinarians are not as needed as in America. We have no shortage of DVMs.”

Whether or not there’s a real U.S. shortage in the profession apart from food-animal medicine is up for debate among veterinary leaders, researchers and even the National Academies of Sciences, which soon is expected to release a demographic report showcasing workforce numbers within various DVM sectors. While each of the nation’s 28 veterinary medical institutions graduates a combined 2,600 students a year, UnAM graduates up to 300, far more than any single U.S. program.

Trigo discounts any notion that graduates of an AVMA-accredited program in Mexico will flood the United States. But with Banfield’s 725-plus veterinary practices on line to hire roughly 600 veterinarians this year, there’s room for bilingual practitioners, especially Southern California, Florida and Texas, corporate spokeswoman Kathy Baumgardner says.

“There are clients who need Spanish-speaking veterinarians very badly,” she says.

According to AVMA’s Pet Demographic Sourcebook, issued last year, Baumgardner's assessment isn’t far off base. Of American households polled in 2006, ethnically Hispanic households own about 2.25 million pets. These families own dogs at roughly the same rate as whites, but show slightly less ownership of cats.

Hispanic dog owners reported the same number of visits to the veterinarian as white owners, on average spending $352 annually compared to $361 spent by Caucasians. White cat owners spent, on average, $192 a year, with Hispanic cat owners reporting just $16 less, the report says.

“Is there a concern that we aren’t graduating enough Spanish-speaking veterinarians, and will it be a public-health problem? I don’t know,” says Jim Flanigan, director of marketing for AVMA’s Communications Division. “But there’s no question that the Hispanic population is growing faster than Caucasian populations. I mean, the Wall Street Journal just quoted census reports that show whites will not be the majority of people in the United States within just a few decades.”

That population shift has the potential to create new challenges for a largely white, only English-speaking veterinarian population, predicts Lisa Greenhill, associate executive director for diversity at the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges. She points to a demonstration project conducted by Verizon Wireless stores, which planted a higher number of Spanish-speaking representatives at select outlets. The results showed a 20-percent increase in sales compared to stores with similar demographics.

The message is clear, Greenhill says. Hispanic consumers, including pet owners, have a “very high interest” in dealing with those of similar backgrounds.

“If a veterinarian isn’t of the same race or ethnicity,” she says, “certainly these clients want to have access to someone with similar language proficiency.”

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