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Covid is a good time to redesign vet degree
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  1. Jacqueline Tam

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Jacqueline Tam is a final-year veterinary student at the University of Edinburgh.

The Covid-19 pandemic has shown us that while people may be creatures of habit, they are also capable of necessary adaptation. The current disruption of our daily lives has given us all the opportunity to reflect and challenge our existing assumptions.

For us current students, the shape of our training in terms of teaching, exams and work experience has been upended, and for those of us due to graduate this summer, our future plans have been thrown into question.

But we have been far from abandoned – interactive tutorials and recorded lectures, external webinars, cases sent electronically by extramural study (EMS) providers and fully certified courses have been made available to us. These have proven popular, as they allow students to learn about clinically relevant subjects that they are passionate about, while fitting it around their own time commitments. These benefits have made me question whether the current tried-and-tested veterinary undergraduate programme – as thorough as it is in providing us with clinical knowledge – is the best way to prepare students to become competent, confident first-opinion vets?

Most vet students will find at least one topic in the curriculum that they find irrelevant to their envisioned future career; we cannot be expected to be interested in all aspects of veterinary work. Our knowledgeable specialist lecturers often forget that their work is beyond what most general practitioners, let alone new graduates, will see in practice. The immense time pressure we are under to memorise enough information to pass our exams means that remembering this new knowledge often comes at the cost of displacing previously retained information and blunts a genuine desire to learn. Rapid technological and scientific advances only add to the burden of knowledge we have to cram into five years. We are constantly drilled about the importance of practical skills, but in reality rarely have the time to actually improve them.

I believe that the veterinary degree needs to be changed to reflect the reality of a modern-day vet

I believe that the veterinary degree needs to be changed to reflect the reality of a modern-day vet. With increasing numbers of specialists and paraprofessionals, vets need to troubleshoot problems rather than necessarily fix them themselves. We should be taught how to think and work up a case, seeking help when necessary, rather than be tested on memorised facts and lists of differential diagnoses. With the expanding role of the vet, our teaching should reflect this with field-specific degrees that allow students to choose a mix of core and selected modules, to ensure that basic knowledge is covered while facilitating exploration and prioritisation of different career paths.

How we are taught should also be reviewed. At Edinburgh university, online lecture recordings were already common before the pandemic. They were intended to be supplementary revision tools, but many students voluntarily switched to this ‘flipped classroom’ approach, choosing to listen to lectures at home, learning at their own pace but still engaging in practicals and tutorials at the university to consolidate that knowledge. Designing courses around this concept would free up time for students to practice skills that are often overlooked because they are difficult to teach in lectures. Scheduling practice sessions one day per week at a clinic, for example, rather than relying on this all being taught and perfected during intensive EMS placements, would allow more realistic progression in a clinical context. Equally, teaching professional values is crucial in maintaining student motivation, belief in their professional role, job satisfaction and ultimately job retention, but this is rarely feasible in formal lectures. Bridging the gap between theoretical knowledge and practical competency is critical in reducing the imposter syndrome in new graduates.

As students, we are told that it is impossible to know everything in veterinary medicine, but we still feel as though we have to try to learn it all. Education shouldn’t stop when we qualify and so surely some of this theory could be learnt after graduation instead.

While we can’t change the veterinary degree overnight, vet schools are aware of the issues and are trying to address some of these. This pandemic has given us a unique chance to really push for change and improve the course for future vets-to-be.

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