Making the Grade: Veterinary Students, Professionals Focus on Communication Skills

Graduates are entering the veterinary field with more comprehensive communication skills that complement their medical knowledge as a result of a new communications curriculum at the University of Guelph in Canada, according to industry sources. The program has been replicated in some fashion by at least eight U.S. and Canadian veterinary schools, said Cindy Adams, MSW, PhD, who developed The Art of Veterinary Medicine at Guelph and coordinated the first International Conference on Communication in Veterinary Medicine in June.

“Communication is like any other skill,” Adams said. “You have to continue to hone it over time.” The conference, which drew 118 industry members, was intended to gather together professionals from academia, research and industry to expand awareness of effective communication techniques. “Practitioners who attended the conference will raise the bar in terms of their expectations of entry-level graduates [who] need mentorship to help maintain and develop their communication skills over time,” Adams said.

Shyness, self-consciousness or lack of communication skills can interfere with a veterinarian’s ability to gather information, listen to clients and explain complex medical conditions in ways that motivate clients to act, said Garth Graham, DVM, who acts as a client-communication coach for The Art of Veterinary Medicine. “We’re not grading students on their medical or technical abilities [in this curriculum], but they use those skills to show us their communication.”

Students are, however, graded on their ability to communicate, said Adams, who gauges student comprehension by using the Objective Structured Clinical Exam (OSCE), a test used in medicine to evaluate clinical skills. Students who fail the OSCE fail the course, she said. Examiners (veterinarians) evaluate how students conduct clinical appointments with clients and patients. One section tests a student’s sensitivity to designing a treatment program for a patient when a client is in a wheelchair.

The first students to take The Art of Veterinary Medicine graduated in 2004 with 27 hours per semester of communication training that includes interactions between veterinarians and team members, colleagues and clients. Over four years, students receive 216 hours of training focused on conflict negotiation, dealing with difficult clients, media interaction and ways veterinarians can express empathy when giving diagnoses, a technique that has been proven to increase client compliance, Adams said.

“I have a very strong feeling for how well this course brings together a veterinary student’s training,” Graham said. “We have a huge responsibility as counselors to people and their pets. There is a huge emotional component associated with veterinary medicine, and the only way to address that is through communication.”

Adams will speak at the AAHA! Baltimore 2005 conference.