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by Marcia Hill Gossard ’99, ’04 Ph.D. | Photos by Henry Moore Jr.

“Here’s what I’ll do,” said long-time client John Vanderhorn to the student working in a veterinary clinic. The doctor was out of the office for a few minutes and Mr. Vanderhorn needed medicine for his cow. But the doctor had said nothing about it to the student. “Since the doc didn’t leave a note, I’ll just go back there and get the medicine myself,” said Mr. Vanderhorn. “That way you won’t be responsible. I’ll even sign something.”

In a calm voice, Angela*, who is really a second year WSU veterinary student, says she will look again for a note. She then comes out of the room to consult with her small group of classmates and veterinarian coach as the simulation goes into a time out to give the student a chance to regroup and refocus. After a few minutes, Angela goes back in and gently but firmly lets the client know she cannot do what he is asking. John leaves annoyed, but much less frustrated than when the conversation started, and much less angry than he might have been had things gone differently.

Ethical dilemmas like this one are just some of the scenarios practiced by veterinary students in the WSU Veterinary Clinical Communication program. The simulated cases they are given are based on real cases (with identities changed) and many are simulated with area residents like John Vanderhorn (his character’s name), who receive training through the program to act as clients. Although the students know they are simulations, they said they don’t feel like simulations. They feel very real.

“We want to do the best job we can for the students, adding excellence to our already strong curriculum.”

—Dr. Steve Hines, associate dean for Teaching and Learning in the WSU College of Veterinary Medicine

“This type of clinical training has been common in human medicine, but WSU is really a pioneer in bringing it to veterinary medicine,” said Dr. Suzanne Kurtz, the Nestlé Purina Professor in Veterinary Clinical Communication who directs the program. “Our students graduate better prepared for basic communication with clients or dealing with difficult or ethical issues.”

Over the last two decades, the WSU College of Veterinary Medicine has developed an innovative veterinary curriculum to develop students’ professional skills along with their medical training, making them more competitive for top jobs once they graduate. Before students even take their first veterinary class, they begin their education with the Cougar Orientation and Leadership Experience (COLE), an off-site retreat designed to promote leadership skills and team building that started in 2002.

“Weaving the thread of how to be a professional is what is most unique about our program here at WSU,” said Dr. Kathy Ruby, veterinary counselor and clinical assistant professor in the Professional Life Skills program. “COLE is the starting place for developing professional skills.”

COLE brings students from different places and connects them to WSU, acclimates them to professional school, and sets the foundation for cooperation and teamwork over the next four years. One of the results of the orientation is that it reduces the adjustment period and students are ready to learn sooner.

By the time they reach their second year, students have already studied ethics, service, and leadership in veterinary medicine. In their second and third years they take classes to learn skills in clinical communication, diagnostic reasoning, and may elect to take a course on how to manage a veterinary practice.

“Students who choose to take the practice management class learn how operate a business in an environment of teamwork,” explains Dr. Rick DeBowes, director of the college’s Professional Life Skills Program. “We teach everything from finance to law and marketing with a focus on client experience.”

They also get experience with “real world” cases in the Diagnostic Challenges. The case-based exercises are conducted collaboratively with faculty in pathology, clinical pathology, bacteriology, virology, immunology, and radiology. Visiting WSU alumni veterinarians come to volunteer as case facilitators to give back to their school and work with current students.

“Students diagnose and work with clients in a setting similar to what they will experience once they are out of school,” said Dr. Steve Hines, associate dean for Teaching and Learning who created the class in 1991 with Dr. Guy Palmer. “It is truly a collaborative endeavor between faculty and the veterinary volunteers who contribute to educating students.” Diagnostic Challenges is celebrating its 20th anniversary in the WSU curriculum.

To continue to foster innovative curriculum, the college created the Teaching Academy in July 2010, the first of its kind in veterinary medicine. The academy supports faculty dedicated to teaching and learning and brings educators together to help integrate common elements in the curriculum. As the associate dean for Teaching and Learning and director of the Teaching Academy, Dr. Hines explains the college is looking at the veterinary curriculum holistically using vertical integration to run threads, such as communication, throughout the curriculum. “The idea is to teach clinical reasoning and non-technical skills in all our classes,” said Hines.

To help support faculty and innovation, each college department now has an associate chair for veterinary education: Dr. Steve Hines for Veterinary Microbiology and Pathology, Dr. Lynne Nelson for Veterinary Clinical Sciences, and Dr. Leslie K. Sprunger for Veterinary and Comparative Anatomy, Pharmacology, and Physiology (now, the Department of Integrative Physiology and Neuroscience).

The emphasis on creativity and innovation has already paid off. Some 78 percent of WSU College of Veterinary Medicine graduates who applied in 2011 for advanced training in an internship or residency program were accepted—the highest percentage among all U.S. veterinary colleges.

“We want to do the best job we can for the students, adding excellence to our already strong curriculum,” said Hines.

* To protect the student’s privacy her real name was not used.

Learn more about Innovative Education in the college.