WSU is a pioneer in bringing clinical communication training
to veterinary students.
From the summer issue of the Veterinary Executive Report, College of Veterinary Medicine
PULLMAN, Wash. – “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 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 Vanderhorn. “That way you won’t be responsible. I’ll even sign something.”
In a calm voice, the second-year Washington State University 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, she returns and gently but firmly lets the client know she cannot do what he is asking. Vanderhorn leaves annoyed but much less frustrated than when the conversation started and much less angry than he might have been had the situation gone differently.
WSU pioneers communication training
Ethical dilemmas like this one are just some of the scenarios practiced by students in the Veterinary Clinical Communication program. The simulations are based on real cases. Many are practiced with area residents (Vanderhorn character), who receive training through the program to act as clients.
Although the students know these are simulations, they said the exercises feel very real.
“This type of clinical training has been common in human medicine, but WSU is really a pioneer in bringing it to veterinary medicine,” said Suzanne Kurtz, 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.”
Highest acceptance among vet colleges
Over the last two decades, the College of Veterinary Medicine (CVM) has developed an innovative curriculum to develop students’ professional skills along with their medical training, making them more competitive for top jobs once they graduate.
The emphasis on creativity and innovation has paid off. Some 78 percent of CVM 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.
To help support faculty and innovation, each college department has an associate chair for DVM education: Steve Hines for veterinary microbiology and pathology, Lynne Nelson for veterinary clinical sciences and Leslie K. Sprunger for veterinary and comparative anatomy, pharmacology and physiology.
“We want to do the best job we can for the students, adding excellence to our already strong curriculum,” said Hines, associate dean for teaching and learning.
Professional ed starts at orientation
Before students even take their first veterinary class, they begin their education with the Cougar Orientation and Leadership Experience (COLE). Started in 2002, the off-site retreat is designed to promote leadership skills and team building.
“Weaving the thread of how to be a professional is what is most unique about our program here at WSU,” said Kathy Ruby, veterinary counselor and clinical assistant professor in the Professional Life Skills program. “COLE is the starting place for developing professional skills.”
Ethics, service, leadership, teamwork, management
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. Orientation reduces the adjustment period so 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 and diagnostic reasoning, and they 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,” said Rick DeBowes, director of the Professional Life Skills program. “We teach everything from finance to law and marketing with a focus on client experience.”
20 years of case-based exercises

In the Diagnostic Challenges class, students
practice their skills on real-world cases.
They also get experience with “real world” cases in the Diagnostic Challenges class. These case-based exercises are conducted collaboratively with faculty in pathology, clinical pathology, bacteriology, virology, immunology and radiology.
Visiting WSU alumni veterinarians volunteer as case facilitators to give back to the college and work with students.
“Students diagnose and work with clients in a setting similar to what they will experience once they are out of school,” said Hines, who created the class in 1991 with 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.
Teaching Academy a first in vet med
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 director of the academy, Hines said 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,” he said.