Story by Nicole Yada and Katharine Tuerke, U of G student writers with SPARK (Students Promoting Awareness of Research Knowledge)


Since veterinarians don’t have the animal conversational skills of Doctor Doolittle, they’re dependent on the information pet owners give. Improving communication between a veterinarian and a pet owner increases a furry patient’s chances of getting better, but veterinary students rarely get to practice their communication skills with real clients – until now.

The new Hill’s Pet Nutrition Primary Healthcare Centre is dedicated to advancing veterinary medicine through teaching, research and service. Video cameras and two-way mirrors are located throughout the teaching clinic to capture students’ interactions with clients, peers, technicians and staff. The recordings are used as a teaching tool to give students feedback and improve their communication skills.

Profs. Michael Meehan and Jason Coe, Department of Population Medicine, are also using focus groups to identify which teaching practices are effective or ineffective and why. “Good communication ensures that veterinarians get more accurate information about the animal and its problem,” says Meehan. “It also helps owners understand and potentially adhere to a veterinary plan of action.”

During the first three years of veterinary school, students take courses in the art of veterinary medicine that focus on professional skill development and communication. To learn about veterinary-client consultation communication, they use the Calgary Cambridge Guide, an evidence-based template for conducting a clinical consultation; it’s based on 40 years of human research that has been adapted for veterinary medicine.

Outside of class students at the Ontario Veterinary College practice their communication skills through role-playing with peers and simulated clients. The students learn to use open-ended questions, paraphrase client concerns and practise relationship-centred communication. They also rehearse developing a rapport with clients, recognizing the client-pet bond, communicating medical conditions and tests, and initiating and closing the interview.

In fourth year, veterinary students apply the skills they learned in class to the clinic. Their first meeting with a real client can be stressful and cause them to revert back to old communication styles and habits, so getting feedback on client communication provides valuable information.

Fourth-year students review their consultations as they learn what to do, what not to do and why. They also identify each communication skill used, a technique called skill-spotting. The two-way mirrors and video review sessions allow faculty to watch and review the communication skills being used.

“By recording all student-client consultations, students receive specific and personal feedback on their communications skills as well as observe the progress they’ve made by the end of their rotation,” says Meehan. Especially good examples of consults will be used as teaching resources for future students.

Aside from videos, communication skills within the clinic are also assessed by evaluations from clients, staff, technicians, peers and by the students themselves.

Coe has also used focus groups to gather feedback on the teaching tools and techniques used by final-year veterinary students at OVC during their small-animal primary-care rotation. “Research shows that using the appropriate educational approach is instrumental to achieving high quality teaching and learning,” he says.

Final-year students’ progress is measured by four evaluation tools: the mini-clinical evaluation exercise (mini-CEX), the direct observation of procedural skills (DOPS), the in-training evaluation reports (ITERs) and multi-source feedback (MSF). These tools offer students feedback on their level of competency in preparation for entering the veterinary profession.

Coe has explored instructors’ and students’ perspectives and ideas around the benefit of the assessment tools by using focus groups with students, veterinarian instructors and technicians working at the centre. Now analyzing the results, he says the findings will shape curriculum development, evaluate the four assessment tools and help faculty to maximize learning opportunities for final-year veterinary students.

The focus group research is part of a larger study investigating how to assess competencies across university programs and is supported by a University of Calgary Seed Grant.