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A man holding his dog.

Veterinary students at the University of Minnesota are taught to be as concerned about the pet owner's well-being as that of the animal he or she treats.

Beyond animal instincts

By Erin Peterson

From eNews, September 1, 2005

Veterinarians are expected to work well with animals. But they also need to work well with the animals' owners--a skill that requires a bit of psychology, a lot of empathy, and the ability to stay calm under pressure.

While classroom lectures and discussion can help give veterinary students some of the tools to interact effectively with clients, only practice allows them to hone their communication skills. That's why, for the past three years, the College of Veterinary Medicine has required first- and second-year vet students to participate in short interactions known as Objective Structured Clinical Examinations.

In each session, students are provided with a scenario and given 15 minutes to prepare for it. Then they go into an exam room individually to talk to a volunteer playing the role of the client. The students have to address both difficult and mundane issues, whether it's delivering bad news about a dying pet or explaining treatment procedures to an elderly client. Volunteers react in specific ways to test students' ability to communicate, empathize, and offer assistance.

"Human medical schools require [these exams] for their accreditation process, but it's not common among vet schools," explains Rebecca McComas, a professor in Veterinary Clinical Sciences. "There are only a handful of schools across North America that do this." Because veterinary students don't work with clients one-on-one until their fourth year, the college is giving them experience so they're better prepared for the real thing.

Second-year student Matthew Duff believes being forced to put classroom lectures into practice was useful when he talked to a dog owner about a mistake the clinic had made reporting the dog's heartworm. "We talk in class about being empathetic and trying to put yourself in the place of clients," he says. "When I was talking [to the volunteer client in the OSCEs], I really took a step back to think about what he was feeling and tried to reflect his feelings back to him."

Students participate in three or four sessions during their first two years of school. They are given videos of their interactions so they can do self-assessments, and the volunteer clients offer immediate feedback as well. Eventually, says McComas, she hopes to be able to grade the interactions.

While it takes time for students to appreciate the insight they gain from the interactions, most eventually agree that it's helpful in the long run. "When students first hear about it, they hate the idea, and they're very nervous," McComas says. "But after they're finished, most students report that it's one of the most valuable learning experiences that they have in their first two years."

Duff agrees with the assessment. "When we start our clinical rotations and start to see real clients, it will be nice to have some background," he says. "We'll be able to say, 'I can go into this difficult situation and handle it well because I've done it before.' And I think that will be very beneficial for all of us."

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