Student vets on work placements play a valuable role in many practices, but as John Burfitt uncovers, the difference between a good and bad intern can come down to the guidelines set by a practice and the person training them
According to the University of Sydney’s veterinary science website, there are clear guidelines for undergraduate and intern vets to follow when they are out in the field on a placement with a practice.
It offers a range of tips, with a mission statement that reads, “The veterinary school accreditation bodies, educational institutions and the profession all believe that work-integrated learning opportunities are a vital component in preparing graduates for veterinary clinical practice.”
There are similar directives regarding placements and graduate internships in various handbooks and websites from universities offering veterinary science courses. The Charles Sturt University Animal Science Year Book 2013 regarding Clinical Extramural Study (CEMS) has the explicit message, “Substantial links are maintained between the University and the practices providing CEMS, and there are very clear expectations of the students’ involvement in the practices and the outcomes of the experience.”
It is when dealing with just what those expectations are, however, that some of the biggest challenges arise for both managers within practices as well as the apprentice vets learning on the job.
Responsibility has to start at the top with senior vets to “lay down what the laws are” from the day the apprentice vets step foot into the practice, says training consultant Jacky Morgan of Eternal Sunshine Solutions, which specialises in training new talent in developing workplace skills.
“Good communication from managers and supervisors to new talents on placements or internships is vital,” Morgan states. “Always ensure apprentices have been given a clear orientation to your business and the way it operates. It means sharing the vision of your business with them, introducing your values, what really matters to you and your clients, and inspire them about what you do and why you offer it to your clients and your profession.
“Most importantly, encourage them to be self directed in their ‘transition’, with full supervision as well as good example. Do not just sit them down and tell them. That will not create the results you wish for.”
Dr Debbie Osborne of the Alice Springs Veterinary Hospital works regularly with student vets from the University of Sydney on placements in her Northern Territory practice. She has a clear set of rules she outlines to anyone arriving to work with her.
The first rule, she stipulates, is the most important to maintaining the standards of the practice. “Anything that legally must or ethically should be done by a registered veterinarian can only be done by a student if a vet is with the student at the time,” Dr Osborne explains. “If everyone obeys that rule, the reputation of the practice and everyone who works here is fine.
“Among the other important rules I teach is consulting room etiquette. Don’t interrupt the vet and if the vet asks for your opinion, give it. If the client asks for your opinion, don’t give it. And be careful not to display shock at what you see—that could make a client think the situation is worse than it is.”
Being 100 per cent clear to the student veterinarians about what their role is within a procedure is paramount, agrees Dr Ilona Bayliss of the Randwick Equine Centre in Sydney. And learning when to keep their mouth closed, she adds, can be the toughest part of the process.
“It is about developing professional judgement in terms of communicating to other vets and to clients,” Dr Bayliss says.
“It is important they are taught to leave all clinical details of the horses to the clinicians, so the students know they have to maintain this even if the owners are pushing for more information—and that can be difficult.
“It can be a tricky situation for all if the student has said, ‘Lucky is going to need surgery tomorrow’, if this is news to the owner and the surgeon has not yet had the chance to discuss it!”
Dr Lindsay Hay is the owner of Sydney’s Baulkham Hills Veterinary Hospital and also works with student vets from the University of Sydney.
Dr Hay says that the best strategy for success with a placement or intern program is for both sides to be willing to learn within the dynamic.
“It is important to ensure the intern is comfortable in the workplace and that practice staff also understand the learning process involved,” he says. “All staff should be switched on to include the intern in the day-to-day activities.
“The intern’s rotation needs to be seen as an extension of their university training, not as ‘work experience’. Informal feedback should be provided during the training, and then during a formal meeting at the halfway point where progress is assessed and problems identified.
“This has to be a two-way street where the interns have the opportunity to raise any concerns they have as well.”
While it is an often-heard industry complaint that ‘interns are more trouble than they are worth’, the reality is they are adding not only a valuable level of service for the practice, but also to the future of the profession.
“They help to keep us on our toes,” Dr Debbie Osborne says. It can also be a case of the teacher emerging from the experience with as much learning as the student, adds Dr Lindsay Hay.
“A partnership with a university is a two-way street and the practice can learn from the intern with regard to the latest techniques and knowledge,” he says.
“When the clients of the practice see that their vets are part of a university training system, it actually reflects well on the practice.
“It does, however, come at a cost, mainly in terms of time, so practices need to be committed to the program and do it properly. In a bigger picture sense, however, it is also good for the veterinary practice to be involved in the training of the future members of our profession,” says Dr Hay.
The success of working with apprentices comes down to having a program and ensuring each part of that process is followed through, adds Jacky Morgan.
“Have an on-the-job learning plan that works with post-observing de-briefs, practise with feedback and a supportive, patient tone with the person you are working with,” she says.
“Doing that can nurture the newbies who are now just on a placement. They will emerge into shining stars you’ll eventually want as part of your permanent team.”