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Replicating private practice: A telemedicine take on veterinary medicine

Second year veterinary students take notes
Second-year veterinary students attending the Diagnostic Challenges take notes as acting client Kathy Slinker explains the trouble she is having with her stuffed pet. The event is going virtual this year.

What is often the first animal case for veterinary students at Washington State University is transforming into a weeklong crash course in veterinary telemedicine.

“There’s been a lot of talk about doing more telemedicine in veterinary medicine,” Professor Steve Hines said. “COVID has kind of forced us into it and we can see, right now especially, that it is an important skill to have.”

This year the Diagnostic Challenges, a series of case-based exercises for second-year veterinary students, is going virtual to protect the health of students and other participants.

The four-day course, which starts this week, provides students veterinary skills in a simulated setting.

Moving into its 29th year, the event offers small groups of 5-7 students their first animal case, a stuffed patient; an acting client who owns that stuffed animal; and a veterinarian, known as a facilitator, to work with the group.

Each medical case is developed by third-year veterinary students over the summer. It’s up to the second-year students to make a diagnosis.

“When you start veterinary school, you get science every day and you forget why you’re going to veterinary school,” Dr. Hines said. “Midway through their second year they get thrown into a clinical situation and they have to use those skills they use in practice; it reminds them of why they wanted to do this and why they are here.”

This year 22 facilitators, most of whom are alumni, from New Zealand, Florida, Indiana, Montana, New Mexico, Vermont, and throughout the Pacific Northwest will take part.

The challenges will look like many veterinary clinics around the country during the pandemic.

“They drop off the animal. They can talk to the client on the phone or by Facetime or Zoom. Sometimes they will have access; other times it will be a true telemedicine experience,” Hines said. “It depends on the case. We are really trying to replicate what is happening in private practice.”

Sami Thomas, a 2015 College of Veterinary Medicine graduate and facilitator since, is preparing for her first virtual Diagnostic Challenges.

Dr. Thomas will be Zooming in from Deer Lodge, Mont., where she is one of three WSU alumni at Clark Fork Veterinary Clinic.

Thomas said she comes back because she understands the importance of the course.

She said she still uses the skills she learned at the Diagnostic Challenges to connect with clients today, and those same skills will only be stronger due to the virtual year.

“Being a veterinarian, you have a patient, but you also have a client,” Thomas said. “If you don’t communicate to your client appropriately, you’re never going to be effective and those are skills you start building at the DCs.”

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