This is the third and final review post of the lecture sessions I attended at AVA 2012. I also plan to report on the education poster session and on my experiment with using social media as a backchannel during the conference.
Sustainable teaching of surgery to veterinary students – Dr Rick Read
Focusing on the teaching of two of the basic requirements to becoming a good surgeon – manual dexterity and surgical decision-making – and the benchmark of day 1 competency in the bitch spey, Dr Read detailed how universities have had to change the way in which develop these skills in students given constraints in funding and limited access to animals for student training e.g. developing non-animal based exercises to develop manual dexterity, use of dog substitutes, closer relationship with shelters to increase access to pound animals and use of OSCEs (objective structured clinical examinations) to assess some skills.
He believes the current concept of the ‘omnicompetent’ new graduate is outdated and unsustainable.
Having graduated in the days when access to animals was easier and surgical caseloads at universities higher, I can see how the new funding and welfare constraints have forced change in surgical training, a situation which must be even more difficult in countries such as the UK where there are even greater restrictions on use of animals. Many novel alternatives have been created and I’m sure it is an area where necessity will continue to be the mother of invention. A move away from the omnicompetent graduate would be a major paradigm shift for the profession but over the sessions I attended I came to see that it may be intrinsically linked with the future sustainability of veterinary education.
Producing graduates who will stay in rural practice – Dr Kym Abbott
Recruiting and retaining vets in rural areas is a challenge for the veterinary profession. Dr Abbott discussed the two views on why this may be – the economic view that salaries and working conditions are not attractive and the alternative view that the profession is not producing the right type of graduates. There are three major ways to fill the rural positions – pulling through good conditions, pushing through tax incentives and producing graduates who are drawn intrinsically.
The three stages of the ‘rural pipeline’ were explained – encouraging selection of rural students, opportunities to train in a rural setting and then support on entry into practice in rural areas. Two of the newer veterinary schools in Australia – Charles Sturt and James Cook universities – are located in rural areas and have more course content based on rural practice training. Charles Sturt also prioritises selection of students from rural backgrounds; I’m not sure if this is the case at JCU. Although it is early days for graduates from these newer schools it appears that these measures are having some success.
Assessment of veterinary education at UQ in preparing graduates for practice
Dr Julia Dowsett graduated from UQ in 2011 and, after 5 months in practice, spoke about how well she felt she had been prepared for her new career on many levels, such as factual knowledge, practical skills and approaches to clinical problems. I was especially interested in her comment that she felt that the communication skills she learnt were among the most valuable assets from her education as they are not something you can easily look up in the clinic but need to be developed over time. She also highlighted how her training had made her a very critical assessor of evidence such as that presented by drug companies to support their new products.
Julia talked about her personal challenge in third year when she struggled to admit that she had to change her style of learning to manage the volume and structure of clinical material. She came close to deferring or leaving completely and the profession should be glad she persisted as she is clearly a credit to the veterinary world. When asked what the university could have done to help her either avoid or minimise her mid-course issues she said it was mostly personal and the difficult patch had been good for her in the longer term. I had a similar revelation about learning style during my fourth year so could identify with her experience.
Julia is obviously an excellent veterinarian. She has a previous degree and work experience and was involved in the leadership program as a student. I did wonder whether all the new graduates would be as confident as she is (I know I wasn’t at the same stage) but she has clearly been served well by her education, which was certainly broader in many ways than that received by graduates in earlier times.
National undergraduate veterinary student survey – Dr Guyan Weerasinghe
In 2010 two undergraduates from the University of Queensland noticed that although there was information about expectations of new graduates from employers, there were no inquiries into veterinary students’ expectations and opinions of their first job. Showing fabulous initiative, they decided to conduct a study themselves, which they distributed online to 5 of the 7 veterinary schools.
When asked to rank their priorities in choosing their first job a good supportive boss was top priority, followed by being employed in their area of interest. I was surprised by this result as I would have thought these would have been reversed.
Student ideas about their income from their first job showed that the majority expected to receive $40,000 to $45,000, which is between the award wage for graduate veterinarians ($38,721) and the average starting salary based on data from the Graduate Careers Survey ($45,000). Poor remuneration has long been an issue for vets and I am personally extremely disappointed and concerned to note that the starting salary has not improved since I graduated in the mid 1990s and that the situation in similar in both the US and UK.
Guy pointed out some shortcomings in the design of the study, such as bias in the wording of some questions. Despite these flaws, it is a very worthwhile piece of research which will hopefully be improved upon and repeated in 3-5 years. Kudos to Guy and Suffien for their initiative. I was very impressed with Guy and hope to see more of his work in the future.
Facebook for clinics – Dr James Ramsden
Being interested in social media, I had a break from my education focus to learn about how clinics are using Facebook and what value it has. James started by reviewing the key client communication tools – email for current clients and websites for prospective clients who need information about the clinic such as phone numbers and maps. Social media is the new form of word of mouth and several in the room shared their experiences with Facebook. Ways of managing the inevitable negative comments were discussed with one story of a criticism being made by an owner who had never visited the clinic. Within a short time many clients posted their support for the vet, which largely resolved the matter and demonstrates the power of the medium.
James discussed the amount of time and type of content needed to sustain a page, including keeping up regular posting and including images of cute patients which are very popular with clients. A champion Facebook user in the audience explained his frankly brilliant although use of Facebook to build his relationships with clients and keep them informed about their animals eg posting a picture a bandage change while the owner is at work so they could see the progress for themselves.
What I took home from AVA 2012
AVA 2012 was my first foray into wider veterinary issues for several years as I have been focusing on family duties. It was also somewhat experimental as I planned to tweet and blog the event for my own focus and learning and also to provide a mini backchannel for anyone interested but not able to attend. I’ll be blogging about the experience in a couple of weeks’ time.
I was impressed with the changes and innovations which have occurred in veterinary education. Current students receive a far more rounded, engaging experience than I did, which was great to hear. I was concerned, but not surprised, by the many pressures and constraints experienced by veterinary educators and suspect there may be significant changes ahead, which may include streaming of students or an intern year to develop some of the technical skills. A concern raised by multiple speakers was that by focusing on day 1 competencies, the veterinary degree risks becoming a technical rather than a science course, not an idea I had previously considered.
On a profession-wide level, the discussion with the strongest resonance for me is the need for more veterinarians to work in the areas of agriculture and public health and for the profession as a whole to be more visible to the public and to increase its influence in the corridors of power. Although I have not reviewed Professor John Webster’s very valuable contributions to the conference in detail, I feel that if we could all emulate his passion for the well-being of animals and his willingness to stand up and defend his convictions, the profession and the world we live in would benefit greatly. Thanks to the AVA for presenting an excellent conference.