Enacting Positive Change in Veterinary Medicine

Ruthanne Chun, clinical professor of medical oncology at the UW School of Veterinary Medicine, embraces Scout, a previous patient of UW Veterinary Care, in the hospital’s oncology waiting room.
Credit: WeatherTech

Like most veterinarians, Ruthanne Chun DVM’91 knew she wanted to be a veterinarian from childhood.

“You know the cliche of ‘I’ve always loved animals.’ As a kid, I wanted to be a veterinarian, and when I grew, I realized that I could actually do just that,” she says.

Chun has gone above and beyond in her dream to be a veterinarian. At the UW-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine, she serves as the chief of large animal services, section head and clinical professor of medical oncology, and co-chair of the professional development curriculum working group.

Chun also serves as president of the American Association of Veterinary Clinicians and, last December, finished a three-year term as president of the oncology specialty within the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine.

Believe it or not, despite her early convictions, Chun almost went down a different professional path. She attended UW-Madison for her undergraduate degree, first pursuing preschool and kindergarten education.

“I didn’t think I could do the science and math for veterinary medicine,” Chun says. It wasn’t until an advisor pushed her to follow her passion and take some pre-veterinary classes that she made the jump. “I took chemistry and I passed,” she recalls, and she then switched to majoring in meat and animal sciences.

Chun continued her education at UW-Madison to pursue a DVM degree. After graduation, Chun moved on to an internship at Cornell University, where she discovered an interest in oncology, the study and treatment of cancer. She then went on to a residency in comparative oncology at Purdue University.

Reflecting on her chosen specialty, Chun says, “You get to work with clients who want to do what they can for their animals and want to be educated. They recognize that sometimes you can’t cure their animal. It’s a whole reframe of what success is. There’s also the comparative aspect, where what we learn about cancer care in animals can be translated back into people, and what we learn in people can be translated into animals.”

A subsequent role at Kansas State University developing a new veterinary oncology program showed Chun the impact veterinarians can have outside of directly helping animals.

“I started to realize that there were ways you could affect positive change that would impact an organization. There’s a lot you can do at a system level to try and make things better,” she says.

When Chun returned to UW-Madison as a veterinary medical oncologist in 2005, she used her passion and experience to help build the school’s veterinary oncology service. Then, in 2010, she became associate dean for clinical affairs, a position she held for 11 years.

Over the years, Chun has become more involved in administrative affairs to enact positive change in veterinary medicine on a local and national level. Most recently, she led an American Association of Veterinary Clinicians Diversity, Equity and Inclusivity (DEI) working group. Chun convened this team of veterinarians from various specialties and colleges of veterinary medicine throughout the nation, plus American Association of Veterinary Medical Colleges staff, in the spring of 2021 to explore the limited diversity of the veterinary medical profession.

The working group published their findings and recommendations in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association this past December. Specifically, they outlined ways to improve the representation of historically marginalized communities within post-DVM clinical training programs and veterinary academic faculty, noting that improved diversity in human healthcare is known to improve patient health outcomes, patient-to-provider communication, and patient satisfaction.

Few black, indigenous, or people of color (BIPOC) individuals in DVM programs currently go on to academic careers or advanced clinical training internships. The AAVC DEI group identified opportunities for progress in recruiting and retaining students of color into academic veterinary medical careers and creating more inclusive and welcoming environments. The group also analyzed barriers in this transition, including within the application and interview process. And they provided suggestions to improve diversity and decrease implicit bias (the unconscious stereotypes or assumptions made about others) in the intern and resident selection process.

Locally, one aspect of Chun’s work that she finds most rewarding is her co-founding of Wisconsin Companion Animal Resources, Education, and Social Services, better known as WisCARES, and her continued leadership with the clinic. WisCARES provides subsidized veterinary medical care, housing support and advocacy, and other social services to Dane County pet owners who are low-income or experiencing homelessness or housing insecurity. Chun notes that understanding others’ perspectives is at the heart of this access-to-care initiative.

“What we teach and model at WisCARES is self-reflection and the understanding that this is how I see the world, but somebody’s coming to me with their animal because they want help. What is their world like? How can we help them in the best way that honors and respects where that person’s coming from?” Chun says.

This fall, Chun was recognized as a 2022-23 recipient of the UW-Madison Outstanding Women of Color Award, which honors significant contributions to social justice and advocacy, community service, research on race, ethnicity, and indigeneity, or inclusive community building by women of color among UW-Madison faculty, staff, and students.

Day in and day out, Chun is still a veterinarian and professor at heart. Currently, she teaches three introductory courses at the UW School of Veterinary Medicine, helping first-year students gain direct exposure with animals. She also sees patients through UW Veterinary Care’s Oncology service.

“When you work with a client one-on-one with their animal, it’s really about recognizing what that animal means to this person and how you can help,” she says. “What I love is teaching others to be able to do that. And trying to help enact systemic positive change.”

Chun looks forward to enacting even more positive change, hoping to increase veterinary medical trainees’ clinical experience, professional communication skills, compassion, and understanding.

“There’s always going to be something else that needs to be done,” she says. “I like to look at it as a glass half full. Your job is never done.”

Britta Wellenstein 

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