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Before the full force of third year hit, the first week back at vet school started with everyone catching up on tales from their summer holidays.

Before long, it was like we’d never left and the four months of freedom seemed to fade into a distant memory. However, one particular topic of holiday gossip that I have been dwelling on is extramural studies (EMS).

Everyone had undertaken some form of EMS over the summer, whether it was just a week or two, a solid two months, clinical, preclinical, large or small animal – there is a lot of room for variation in our placements, but I was still surprised to hear of how different some of my friends’ experiences had been, despite doing theoretically similar placements.

A number of us had embarked on our first clinical placements, and although we’re all at the same stage of our studies and therefore should be able to get involved during veterinary placements to a similar extent, the truth is somewhat different.

Just among my friends, there were experience levels at both ends of the scale, with some students having been simply told to observe consultations and others being allowed to scrub into surgical procedures.

This wide range of experiences can be attributed to many factors, including:

  • the veterinary practice
  • how well the vet knows the student (either from previous experience or length of placement)
  • how well the staff have judged the student’s knowledge and ability based on stage of the veterinary course
  • attitude and competency of the vet
  • the individual student’s skills, experience and attitude

I was advised by a final year student last year to undertake the majority of my clinical EMS at one single practice if possible, because by getting to know the vets well (and vice versa), they’ll be able to judge your level of competency better and encourage you to get more involved. I can now begin to appreciate this advice more, having listened to the anecdotes from my friends.

ems-quote2The practical teaching we receive at vet school is just not enough to be able to adequately develop and refine essential clinical skills that will be needed everyday in general veterinary practice. The solution to this is EMS, and we are constantly being told that we, as students, need to take responsibility for our own learning and ensure that we get the most out of EMS by getting involved. And I whole-heartedly agree – we can’t be spoon-fed forever and need to be proactive in gaining the right type of experience.

However, you could be the most enthusiast student in the world and read up on cases every night, and yet still be very limited in what you are allowed to do. While getting the most out of a placement is up to us, it takes two to tango, and we need the vets’ support too in order to enable us to do this.

I know taking on students and teaching or letting them practice techniques can be time-consuming and inconvenient, but we need to gain experience somehow. At some point during their training, all vets would have had to see practice and learn in the same way, so is it not just a way of giving back to the profession?

I can also appreciate that some people are just not natural teachers (after all we’re training to work in a vet clinic, not a school), but a little bit of patience and some advice can go a whole lot further than just ignoring a student.

It may sometimes be inappropriate for a student to be asking questions or trying things out – in the consultation room in front of the client, for example – but these situations can be fine when approached the right way. I was lucky enough to stand in with vets that would always try and get me to see/hear/feel things. If they found something interesting in the consultation room, they’d always explain to the client that I was a student and ask if they minded me having a look. This seems far more reasonable to me than telling a student they are to observe only.

Another approach I experienced myself was the vet taking the animal to the surgery room to take blood samples and allowing me to perform my own clinical examination (having not actually been in the original consultation).

As mentioned previously, there can be many factors involved in getting a “good” clinical placement. It also depends how busy the surgery is – if there are four clients waiting to see the same vet, it’s understandable for the vet to whizz through them without having much time for questions or explanations (whenever this happened to me, the vet apologised for not explaining, even though she really didn’t need to!).

I have to agree there are advantages to going back to a veterinary practice you know. I did work experience for three years before university at the practice I did my EMS at this summer, and definitely felt welcomed as part of the team, which can be difficult at an entirely new practice.

Yes, it is our responsibility to find the balance between getting involved to gain experience and not interfering with consults, but we also need vets to help us a bit too. Undertaking EMS is the only way we will prepare ourselves for the future, and we’re extremely grateful for the vets that encourage and help us every step of the way (partly why most vet students are pretty good at baking). I think it’s just a case of finding the right practice for both you and the vets you’ll be learning from.

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