“It’s not until you do it yourself that you really learn” - Veterinary Practice
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“It’s not until you do it yourself that you really learn”

Teaching veterinary students, I’m always keen to ensure that what I’m saying gives them the next step towards reaching the RCVS’s Day One Competences, “the ability”, as their website tells us, “to perform the roles and tasks required by one’s job to the expected standard”. The website makes it clear that this is more than having a skill – it involves “applying relevant knowledge, and having the confidence and ability to transfer what has been learnt to a variety of contexts and new unpredictable situations”.

Yet somehow, I think that we sometimes forget the confidence side of the requirement and focus more on the fact-based areas of disease diagnosis and treatment. But in the list of 37 day one competences, it’s not until competence 16 that we get to the day-to-day clinical requirements of the role. Before that, the competences involve professional conduct, ethics and legislation, business management, health and safety, risk management – and that’s only the first few! Obviously then we have communicating with clients, preparing records, working effectively as a member of a team… The trouble is it’s difficult to teach those elements of the job in a lecture theatre, and tricky to demonstrate them in a referral hospital clinic. Quite taxing to examine the students in them too, although assessing their client communication in situations with actors playing the role of the pet owner is an interesting task. It is so lovely to see students you’ve worked with for years really coming into their own discussing clinical problems with the “owner” in an encounter as near to reality as is possible outside the actual clinic.

Which brings me to the point of this little offering today. My worry is how we instil in students a confidence to be able to talk to owners. They may have all the book-learning the vet course can give them, but how do they gain the inner strength to be able to talk to clients with the self-confidence that then gives the owner themselves the confidence that this new graduate is the right person to care for their beloved pet? It is practice, isn’t it? You can watch someone else consulting for yonks, and learn a lot for sure, but truth be told it’s not until you do it yourself that you really learn.

Aristotle said the best way to learn how to build a wall is to build a wall – not watch someone else build it or sit in a lecture or read a book about it.

What I love doing is leaving a student in the room with a client while I go to fetch a piece of equipment or count out some tablets. Hopefully when I come back, they are having an interesting conversation with the client, not standing in an embarrassed silence. If they are in animated discussion, I’ll suggest that next time they lead the consultation, having suggested to them the questions they might ask. That goes for final year students and sixth-formers who come to get some work experience too – if they are up to it.

My question to you is whether you do the same for students doing EMS with you. For it’s in EMS – what we used to call Seeing Practice – that students can really start to practise what they will be doing on their own the moment they start work. But only if we let them. My concern talking to students coming back from EMS is that many are just watching and not participating themselves, even after they have been in the clinic for weeks. Maybe I’m wrong, but if you look on them as rather an encumbrance, could you rather see EMS as a great opportunity to train the next generation in client-speak quite as much as cat spays?

RCVS’s Day One Competences can be found online.

David Williams

Fellow and Director of Studies at St John's College, University of Cambridge

David Williams, MA, VetMB, PhD, CertVOphthal, CertWEL, FHEA, FRCVS, graduated from Cambridge in 1988 and has worked in veterinary ophthalmology at the Animal Health Trust. He gained his Certificate in Veterinary Ophthalmology before undertaking a PhD at the RVC. David now teaches at the vet school in Cambridge.

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