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Pandemic puts digital spin on veterinary medical education

A student poses for a picture virtually with a veterinarian and a cat.
Fourth-year veterinary student Marisa Carrera completes her virtual preceptorship rotation at Island Cats Veterinary Hospital in Mercer Island with WSU College of Veterinary Medicine alum Gary Marshall ('89). Carrera spent eight to 10 hours per day on online platforms connecting with veterinarians and clients at the clinic.

Dental procedures, growth removals, catheter placements, blood draws and stacks of client paperwork, too.

From the seat at their dining room table via Zoom, veterinary students at Washington State University are overseeing these procedures and more.

It’s part of the Washington State University College of Veterinary Medicine’s mission to educate future veterinarians while abiding by the Centers for Disease Control guidelines to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

“For me giving up is not an option, and not providing some sort of education is not an option,” said Gary Marshall ‘89, a Cougar alumnus who now owns Island Cats in Mercer Island, Wash.

Marshall, also a WSU adjunct assistant professor, is one of more than a dozen partner veterinary clinics throughout the West that offer four-week rotations to WSU veterinary students.

His first student of the semester, Marisa Carrera, recently wrapped up her first two weeks at the clinic. Without stepping foot in the clinic or even in the Pacific Northwest, she oversaw 43 surgeries in two weeks from her Las Vegas, Nevada, home.

Carrera said that was more than double the number of cases she would have seen if she was the primary doctor on the case.

“I ended up walking her through the exams. We had specialists come in and I would forward her all the lab work and have her come up with a diagnosis,” Marshall said. “She would also write email responses to the owner.”

She likely spent more time than most on Zoom, too. Try an average of eight to 10 hours per day.

Carrera also worked with clients via video conference calls.

“Overall, it was not an ideal situation,” Carrera said. “This is normally not how we would be learning, but I was impressed how much I got out of it. I learned a lot about feline medicine and for not being present, I have a good idea of what it’s like in a feline practice.”

As of now, Carrera and Marshall plan to meet in February to finish the last two weeks of the four-week course.

“There is no instruction manual for this kind of thing. We’re trying to make a way to provide something of quality for students, but at some point, veterinary medical education has to be hands-on,” Marshall said.

While the four-week rotation at a private veterinary clinic is required, faculty and staff and WSU’s College of Veterinary Medicine are requiring students to complete a risk assessment form if they attend clinics in person.

Leslie Sprunger, associate dean of academic and student affairs for the college, said the forms must be submitted one week before the student attends the rotation.

The assessment asks students if they still feel comfortable about participating in the rotation and current travel restrictions in the area they may be residing. The forms are also for veterinary clinics to fill out and asks if proper personal protective equipment will be available to the student.

“Right now, this is what veterinary medical education has to look like,” Sprunger said. “There is no priority higher on our list than student safety, but we still want to find ways to teach our students during this time.”

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