Animal Health Matters: Can veterinary medicine be taught online?

Russ Daly
Special to the Farm Forum

I get to teach one course here at SDSU, on animal diseases. The students are a great mix of future livestock producers, veterinarians, nutritionists, and many others. Because the subject doesn’t get covered much elsewhere, and students have their own animal experiences, they tend to be pretty eager to learn.

The semester started out well, with a roomful of students coming to class Tuesday and Thursday mornings. I’d break up lectures with interactive exercises and the students would break them up with questions about health problems in their animals back home. Those interactions created a great learning environment.

I said goodbye to the students before spring break, looking forward to the second half of the class, where we dive into specific diseases such as bovine respiratory disease, calf scours, and rabies. None of us had any idea we wouldn’t be seeing each other in person again. SDSU and every other higher learning institution shut down the campus due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

I had to adjust my teaching a little bit, but it wasn’t bad. Instead of lecturing to a roomful of students each morning, I talked at a bunch of names on my laptop screen as I showed my slides. We figured out how to ask each other questions during the live web lectures. The weekly in-class quizzes had to be moved online, but their assignment scenarios could still be turned in online as usual. Unfortunately, the culminating highlight of the class — visits to local dairies to assess their disease control practices – had to go by the wayside.

Veterinary schools were in the same boat. While lecture courses could be adjusted like mine was, there was no alternative for clinical experiences. Instead of going to farms to practice palpation skills, or spaying cats in the school’s hospital, 4th year vet students were stuck in their homes watching videos of the procedures. Not exactly the same experience.

To me, the situation shone a light on the unique nature of veterinary education – the need for students to develop intellectual as well as physical skills, and that successful veterinary practitioners are adept at both. A veterinarian is regularly tasked with complex diagnostic problem solving involving not only the animals, but their environments and the human factors that affect their care. At the same time, they’re expected to be skillful at procedures ranging from feeling a fetus through the rectum of a cow (while assessing its stage of growth) to surgically removing a rubber ball from a labradoodles’ small intestine. It’s this unique mix of the physical and analytical that appeals to students wanting to enter the profession – it certainly did for me.

While the intellectual parts of veterinary education could muddle through a campus closure, it’s the physical skill development that suffered. While all graduating veterinarians arguably still have some skills left to hone (even in the pre-COVID world, getting enough repetition with surgeries and palpations in the academic setting was challenging) this year’s crop of grads will have some extra catching up to do on the job.

But even didactic classes like mine benefit from those face-to-face, hands-on interactions. I could have given the students a typed-up description of a dairy they could use to assess its disease prevention practices; the students probably would have gotten something out of it. I believe, though, there’s no substitute for meeting the farmer face-to-face, conversationally asking questions, observing their body language, seeing the cows, smelling their feed, and hearing the chatter among the milking parlor workers, to get a real sense for what’s happening there.

Everyone faces challenges in the post-COVID world, but veterinary educators have some particularly daunting ones. How can they provide for physical skill development when travel and access is limited? How can interpersonal skills be honed when phone, video, or email communications are the only means possible?

Keep this in mind the next time you encounter a veterinary student or new graduate in a practice. Their education didn’t end with their coursework, even more so this year. Be patient with them as they continue their learning, and you might just have a valued new veterinary relationship on your hands.