Spring/Summer 2019 Issue

by Marcia Hill Gossard ’99, ’04 Ph.D.

On a crisp fall morning, volunteers from 10 states came to WSU to participate in something unique to the College of Veterinary Medicine: The Diagnostic Challenges.

During one week in October and a second week in November, 60 volunteers helped 130 second-year veterinary students hone their diagnostic and communications skills.

Mike Burdette (’73 DVM) began volunteering eight years ago after reading about the program in the college’s Advance newsletter and from recent graduates who shared how much they learned during their own Diagnostic Challenges. Recently retired from his mixed animal veterinary practice, Burdette wanted to continue working with other veterinarians and give back to his alma mater. “I found I missed helping my clients and their animals,” says Burdette. “Now I can help students get started and maybe give them an additional viewpoint.”

“I immediately returned to start volunteering in my first year following graduation,” says Sami Thomas (’15 DVM), who has been volunteering for the past three years. “I wanted to maintain a relationship with the college and veterinary education.”

For Suzy Pence (’06 DVM), her call to volunteer came in 2012 after a fellow classmate, Maryam Salt, telephoned and presented her with an opportunity she couldn’t refuse. “They were in need of new facilitators, and Maryam thought I would enjoy the experience,” says Pence. “It just felt too important not to participate. And I could not think of a better way to show my appreciation to the college, and to Dr. Steve Hines, for my education.”

Nearly a dozen years ago, Linda Fineman (’92 DVM) was also encouraged by a fellow WSU graduate. She volunteered the first time with her friend and alumnus, Kyle Frandle (’80 DVM). “He talked about how rewarding his experience as a coach had been and encouraged me to come along,” says Fineman. “Once I had the experience of seeing the students’ faces light up after they had an ‘aha moment,’ I was completely hooked.”

Innovative Student Education

Veterinary professors Steve Hines and Guy Palmer created the Diagnostic Challenges program in 1991 to provide students with practical clinical experience early in their education. “Students diagnose and work with clients in a setting similar to what they will experience once they are out of school,” says Hines.

The challenges are based on actual medical cases. A volunteer client visits a simulated exam room with a stuffed animal patient. The students listen to clients describe the animal patient’s symptoms to determine the correct diagnosis and treatment. Volunteer veterinarian facilitators help guide the students through the diagnostic process. But even more importantly, students learn how to listen to clients, answer their questions, explain complex medical issues in a ways will make sense to the client, and practice their problem-solving skills.

“Students get experience in the unexpected,” says Burdette. “A couple, for instance, may disagree on what medical tests will be done or how much they are willing to spend. Students learn how to navigate these new issues that come up while treating animals. It is a great way for the students to practice listening to the client and then explain to the client all their reasoning.”

“Communication is a paramount skill in our profession,” says Pence. “As the exercise progresses, it is wonderful to see them recognize the importance of client communication and watch as their interactions with the clients evolve.”

“There is nothing more rewarding than seeing the students experience a true learning moment,” says Fineman. “You can see that those lessons are going to stick with them for their whole career, unlike the facts that they memorize to get through their didactic training.”

“Teaching veterinary students, and all medical students for that matter, presents a unique challenge,” says Thomas. “Not only must we teach them the facts and science of medicine, but we must also teach them how to think like a doctor.”

Volunteers Make the Difference

One of the most unique aspects of the program, explains Steve Hines, is that it is a true collaboration between academic veterinary medicine and practitioners. “Our volunteer veterinary facilitators bring invaluable experience, real world perspectives, unmatched passion, and ideas we’d never otherwise have considered,” says Hines.

And so many of the volunteers come back year after year because they find it gratifying.

“I gain so much personally from my participation,” says Pence. “Every year I get immersed in a different case where I feel I learn almost as much as the students do. And it feels good to give back. I am so thankful that I have this experience in my life.”

“I cannot recommend volunteering highly enough,” says Fineman. “It’s rewarding, fulfilling, and invigorating!”

Whether a client volunteer, who is often an alumnus or a student’s family member, or an alumnus veterinarian facilitator volunteer, Steve Hines says the Diagnostic Challenges would be impossible without their time and effort.

“Volunteers have become the heart and soul of the program,” says Hines. “The care and determination with which they approach their roles and provide students with feedback is absolutely priceless. Their contributions over the past 20 years have made the Diagnostic Challenges what they are today.”