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Calgary vet school blazes new trails

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“It gives undergrad students a chance to have hands-on practice. They get to see wire-cut horses, calvings and a dog with porcupine quills.”



Veterinarians may know a horse or cow inside out, but what about their stall-side manner? Do they know how to handle owners when it comes to euthanizng a barnyard pet? Can they handle the farmer who challenges their diagnosis? Can they deal with the dog owner who goes into a tailspin while watching their pet fall sick?

These are just some of the real-life scenarios that the faculty of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Calgary (UCVM) presents to its students as mock situations. As part of its curriculum, the program brings in actors to stage diverse reactions from clients – from tears to anger and lies. Students are evaluated on their responses, while their classmates watch and video the exchanges. Communications is a large component of the program, recognizing that the relationship between animal owners and their vets can be crucial in providing proper diagnosis and successful treatment.

“This program is so profound,” Dr. Eugene Janzen, assistant dean of clinical practice told a recent tour of the impressive modern facility. “This is stuff you used to learn by osmosis.” By integrating theory, clinical knowledge and communication skills, the program is a trailblazer among vet colleges, said Janzen.

“It’s great. This is what we are going to have to deal with once we are practising and it’s a good way for us to be prepared,” said third-year student Kelsey Shacker.

The UCVM is Alberta’s first veterinary college, and began accepting grad students in 2006 and undergrad students from Alberta in 2008. By the summer of 2012, it hopes to have graduated 120 students from the four-year program.

Beyond theory

Hands-on work is a key element, said Janzen. Unlike other vet schools, UCVM students go beyond theory in their first year, receiving practical experience in the $65-million Clinical Skills Building which was completed in 2009. Most other vet schools don’t offer clinical experience until third or fourth year. Fourthyear UCVM students work in the community, at private vet clinics, federal and provincial agencies, non-governmental organizations, and with other animal-industry partners.

It is also the only vet school in Canada that does not have a campus hospital. Instead, students spend time in existing vet clinics throughout the province.

“It gives undergrad students a chance to have hands-on practice. They get to see wire-cut horses, calvings and a dog with porcupine quills,” said Janzen,

noting clients may not be as willing to bring an animal to a vet hospital, so students at an outside clinic experience a broader spectrum of cases.

For Janzen, the new Clinical Skills Building on the Spy Hill Campus northwest of U of C is a far cry from his days as a vet student at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine in Saskatoon, where he graduated in 1972. “It’s pretty newfangled for an old guy like me,” he said.

The 80,000-sq. ft. building includes a pathology suite, anatomy labs, animal-handling areas and classrooms. Students work on animals that at first appear to be no more than stuffed toy dogs and cattle. But they are simulators, fitted with internal parts that also give respiration and heart rates.

At a time when the public is sensitive to the use of live animals in research, the models are the ideal solution. Whether palpating a cow or dealing with the intestines of a colicky horse, the models allow students to safely perform examinations. “We can fine-tune how we do the procedures, and at the same time, not worry about being kicked or bit,” said Shacker.

“It’s a learning building and is unique to North America. It’s a deluxe facility,” said Janzen. “They’re getting hands-on skills right from the beginning. Vets tell us not to send them students that can’t find the jugular in a horse.”

No treadmill needed

Equipped with the latest technology, UCVM is the first in Canada to have a dynamic respiratory scope that allows researchers to see inside a horse’s upper airway while it is exercising. “The rider puts it in a backpack and it transmits the video. It’s unreal. So we don’t need to have a treadmill here,” said Janzen.

The DRS has been used at Bar None Ranches, a training facility for Thoroughbred race horses near Okotoks.

Even applying to the college differs from entry into other vet schools. Interviews are held before panels, with students judged on problem-solving. Each is given two minutes to come up with a solution to a presented case. “It’s a series of interviews set up to elicit empathy and problem-solving,” Janzen said. “It’s stressful, but it really does prepare you for the rest of the program,” said Shacker.

One unique area of emphasis is the interface between animal and human health, evident in new and emerging diseases that originate in animals and are transmitted to people, such as West Nile virus, H1N1, SARS and avian flu. Research areas include public health, ecosystem health, stem cells and regenerative medicine, equine health and wildlife and zoo medicine. UCVM is one of five vet colleges in Canada. Prior to its opening, Alberta students interested in vet studies attended the Western College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Saskatchewan. Canada’s other vet programs are in Ontario, Quebec and Prince Edward Island.

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