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How vet school has changed over the years

Students today get more hands-on experience and are taught business and communication skills too

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According to the philosopher Heraclitus, the only thing constant is change. Nowhere is this truer than in veterinary colleges, where yesteryear’s graduates might be surprised to find that students spend more time rehearsing for performance and less time nodding off in a lecture hall.

“One of the biggest changes I’ve seen since I graduated is the delivery of education and students asking for the content to be delivered in a way that suits their learning style,” said Sean Owens, DVM, Dipl. ACVP, the associate dean for admissions and student programs at the University of California, Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine.

“When I was in veterinary school,” the 1998 Colorado State University graduate said, “we would sit on our butts and listen to lectures for eight hours, go home and learn the material, then take an exam.

“Some students still might prefer to sit in a lecture, but they tend to be the outliers,” Dr. Owens added.

Many veterinary schools have evolved to problem-based, hands-on teaching methods that get students out of the classroom at an earlier stage and ensure that they emerge from school with a demonstrated skill set.

“Millennial learners learn differently than we learned,” Owens said. “The way today’s students self-direct their own learning has dovetailed with the problem-based delivery of education that we’re doing now.”

Educational Immersion

Research shows that adults learn best through a hands-on, minds-on approach, said Cyril R. Clarke, BVSc, MS, Ph.D., dean of the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine and a 1981 graduate of South Africa’s University of Pretoria veterinary school.

“The learning goal should, in some way, be engaged with the practical environment and connected with an area of interest,” Dr. Clarke said. “We’ve always had hands-on learning in clinics, but we’re seeing now even greater experiential learning, in addition to the teaching hospitals.”

The University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine in 2014 incorporated a comprehensive clinical skills course that runs through the first two years of the curriculum, said Amanda M. House, DVM, Dipl. ACVIM, interim director of student affairs.

“Our students go into clinics after their second year, from May through December, then return to the classroom for a year, then come back into the clinic in January of their senior year for the spring semester,” she said.

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Dr. House, a 2001 Tufts University graduate, said Florida’s curriculum lists specific learning objectives that students must have clinicians sign off on as they are completed.

“As a result,” she said, “we are tracking the clinical experiences that students are getting in the hospital as well as in the classroom.”

Taking Florida’s cue, Clarke said students at Virginia-Maryland this August will be placed in clinics “very early on in the program.

“Then, when they come out of the clinic, they will have the opportunity to deepen that learning in a classroom and laboratory setting before returning to the clinics for further experiential instruction,” he said.

Similarly, UC Davis students hit the clinics during their first year, in contrast to the traditional practice of waiting until they are upperclassmen.

“It is somewhat of an apprenticeship,” Owens said. “First-year students are paired up with seniors, and they get to see the nuts and bolts, such as where to drop off lab samples, where to go for radiographs and so forth.

“UC Davis has a problem-based curriculum, and the clinical experience puts material in context for the students. For example, in rounds they see why an animal’s potassium level is significant for that particular case.”

Culture Shock

If members of Owens’ Class of 1998 were to spend time in today’s veterinary curriculum, “I think we’d be shocked,” he said.

“I talk to people I graduated with, and they can’t believe how we deliver the educational content and how we teach students to care for themselves while learning that content.”

To keep students in touch with reality, veterinary colleges are partnering with private veterinary practices and emphasizing business management skills, leaders said.

“One of the models that is popular in several of the newer veterinary colleges, but that we have integrated as well, is private practice-based clinical rotations, also referred to as a distributed model,” House said. “At UF we have private-practice veterinarians that are appointed as courtesy faculty members in our departments. Students train for two weeks in a private practice, where they gain practical experience during their clinical rotations.”

Virginia-Maryland has satellite-learning programs with high-caseload, private veterinary practices, Clarke said.

“Another thing that has emerged in higher education generally, and is on the horizon for veterinary education, is distance learning, where educational programs are delivered from one site to another site that is geographically located some distance away,” he said. “This usually works best with a hybrid model, which combines distance learning with hands-on labs and face-to-face interaction with professors.”

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At Florida, students practice simulated client interactions in mock exam rooms, where they are observed and coached by instructors. Communication training has been intensively integrated into the curriculum, as have business courses and an optional business certificate program.

“We started to realize at least 15 years ago that we were graduating veterinarians who were very capable in skills involving diagnosis and treatment of animal diseases, but were not always able to prosper in small business enterprises, which is what clinical practices are,” Clarke said.

“A lot of changes have since been implemented, including courses on practice management and communication with clients,” the Virginia-Maryland dean added. “There also are extracurricular business clubs for students who are interested in learning more about business skills.

“The next phase will be to partner with private practices, where students can get more experiential education in entrepreneurship and business management,” he added.

Focus on Jobs

UC Davis was an early adopter of a career center, Owens said.

“We have a concierge center, where a counselor works with students early in the academic process asking, ‘Where do you want to be?’” he said. “Whether an individual is interested in private practice, an internship and residency, government, public health or specialization, we work with students to prepare them for their career goals.”

Along that line, veterinary students now are given the choice to focus their studies.

“The first two years of our veterinary curriculum are not tracked, but for the remainder of the curriculum students choose their area of emphasis, such as large or small animal medicine,” Florida’s House said. “But they still have a minimum requirement of both small and large animal material; so they receive a broad-based education but have the opportunity to tailor it to what they’re interested in.”

Clarke said administrators recognized that students develop specific interests early in the veterinary program.

“It’s important to give them the opportunity to focus on certain areas of expertise,” he said. “In the last five to 10 years, we’ve seen more opportunity for students to take electives earlier in the program. In some instances, students in the second year of the program now can start tracking small animal, equine or mixed/food animal degrees of specialization.”

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Additional Support

Veterinary educators have taken a hard look at the emotional stress involved with caring for animals and the people who own them. A 2015 study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that veterinarians suffer higher rates of suicidal thoughts and depression compared to the general adult population.

“It has us asking ourselves, ‘What are you going to do about this?’” said Owens, of UC Davis. “I think one answer is to lessen, as much as we can, the emotional trauma associated with veterinary work.”

As a result, stress management wellness is now on the menu.

“When I was a student, I don’t recall anyone having emotional difficulties, although vet school was hard and I am sure that they did; it was just not widely known,” Owens said. “But now we focus on both sides of the coin. We make our students excellent clinicians, but we also teach communication skills—how to deal with tough cases, difficult clients, euthanasias, grieving clients and work-life balance issues, to foster their overall health and well-being.”

House also cited wellness and mental health as areas of concern, noting that UF in 2014 hired a full-time counselor to work with students.

“The educational community is beginning to pay much more attention to this,” Clarke said. “Veterinary students now are being taught how to identify and manage stressful situations and how to communicate with clients.

“Just as it takes business acumen to run a private practice, it’s just as important to make sure you are well equipped to withstand the stresses of veterinary practice” he added.

Veterinary education continues to improve with the advent of medical advances and new resources, Owens said.

“I don’t think that’s unique to Davis or other schools; it’s just the times we live in,” he said. “Despite the differences between when I was a student and students today, there is one thing I am certain of, and that is today’s students are getting excellent veterinary educations.”

Originally published in the May 2016 issue of Veterinary Practice News. Did you enjoy this article? Then subscribe today! 

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