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Showing an interest in life-long learning

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01 March 2017, at 12:00am

GRAHAM DUNCANSON attends his first AVS congress for more than 45 years and is impressed by the eagerness of the students to find long-term careers and to continue their education post-graduation

MY younger colleagues in practice at Westover Veterinary Centre are very kind to me. We have a small tear-off calendar. The advice for me on the Monday morning after attending the latest congress of the Association of Veterinary Students was: “Rest is for the weary. Sleep is for the dead.”

I very rapidly departed for my first call which was to shoot a smallholder’s pig. I don’t relish these types of call but at least I do not hate them as much as my younger colleagues. However, I do admire them all as they all have the appropriate firearm licences and regularly have to do such duties.

Naturally, being a mainly equine practice, the call for a firearm is less than the “injection”. We always give the client the option after we have explained that the phrase “putting to sleep” is not an option with a standing horse. I think destroying is perhaps a better use of words. From this introduction the readers can appreciate that I am a real fan of modern graduates.

The congress of my youth

I am a silly old fool but I can’t remember if the last AVS congress that I attended, which was at Liverpool, was at the end of 1965 or at the beginning of 1966. Joe Brownlie and I attended to represent the Bristol vet school.

There were several highlights which I remember. Some of these the great Professor Brownlie may choose to forget. Our hosts challenged a joint rugby team made up of all the other six veterinary schools.

I as “middle of the back” took charge of the forwards. The biggest man I have ever seen from Glasgow announced that he was open-side. I noticed that the smaller prop from London did not argue and said he was happy to be the tight-side prop! My life was fairly easy as the rest of the forwards roughly sorted themselves out.

Joe, who was fly-half, took charge of the backs. He was not so lucky. One of the wings and our full-back were from Dublin. Both were the worse for drink: in fact, if the wing did not hold him up the full-back fell over.

Needless to say, although the forwards did their best we were 48 points down at half-time. I suspect it was Joe’s idea: at the break he emptied a bucket of cold water over both of the Irishmen.

In fact they were both very good players. I think the full-back went on to play for Ireland. The cold water sobered them and made all the difference. Not only could they both run liked hunted wildebeest but the full-back was a great goal kicker. We ended the match walking off with our heads held high, losing by the very respectable score of 54 to 24.

More problems awaited Joe and me.

There were no showers available for the rugby players so we went back to the student union. There did not seem to be any showers there but we did find a student washing room with washing machines and large sinks for hand washing.

We were both sitting happily in two sinks when the tough Liverpudlian janitor arrived. He was not amused. So the future professor and the author were thrown out in the public area wrapped in rather small towels!

Learning past and present

Back in the sixties there was only one AVS meeting each year which included sports and learning. Joe and I were lucky enough not only to hear a memorable lecture by the great Joan Joshua but also to attend a small group workshop.

Sadly, I cannot remember the content of the lecture but I do remember the start. The lecture hall was crowded and very noisy. Joan entered and the noise continued. She did not open her mouth but just stood glowering at us. Within 30 seconds you could have heard a pin drop.

She started he lecture with no visual aids, no microphone and no notes. We were all enthralled for the full 40 minutes. The workshop consultation was on progressive retinal atrophy (PRA). Joan gave us five students a short talk on PRA and then her veterinary nurse brought in the client with a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. Believe it or not, the client was called Lady Bowels.

“It is very kind of you, Lady Bowels, to let these students examine your little dog. I will just have a look into the eyes with my ophthalmoscope first.” None of us dared smile, let alone laugh. As Joan bent towards the dog it growled and bared its teeth.

“Do you mind leaving us for a second, Lady Bowels?” Turning to me 

– I was probably standing transfixed with my mouth open – she said, “Open the door young man.” After I closed the door Joan tried again to examine the dog. It was more aggressive. “Give it what it deserves, Roger.”

The nurse gave it two sharp slaps to its body. The dog stood like a rock as Joan examined it for the third time. “Ask Lady Bowels to join us.” After I had opened the door again, Joan gave us all a short talk on PRA as we each examined an acquiescent dog. We not only learnt about PRA but also a useful lesson in client management.

The modern students have two meetings a year. The one I attended was the congress and the second at a different time is the so-called sports weekend which I understand is a very good excuse for some serious drinking.

The congress

My reason for attending was on behalf of the British Veterinary Camelid Society (BVCS). I had a stand as did some veterinary companies, the BVA, BSAVA, BCVA, the Sheep Veterinary Society, the Veterinary Public Health Association and the Laboratory Animal Veterinary Association.

It was strange that the British Equine Veterinary Association was not represented. The PDSA and Cats Protection were there, together with the Royal Army Veterinary Corps. This career fayre was well-attended with many enthusiastic students showing a lively interest.

I was interested to find that the students were not totally focused on just future first jobs but also in long- term careers.

All the students were worried about their lack of knowledge of South American camelids as the lectures on this species seem to be few, certainly at Edinburgh. The students were amazed that there over 40,000 SACs in Britain. The two Dublin students I spoke to confirmed that they had seen several herds in Eire.

Obviously I stressed the need to join the BVCS as a means not only to increase their knowledge but also to obtain help with their problems when they come into practice via the BVCS e-mail forum. I was interested to see that there was a lecture on backyard poultry as well as two sessions on poultry handling. Poultry is also an area which does not feature highly on university curricula.

The lack of BEVA presence at the career fayre was compensated by two excellent lectures: one by Caroline Hahn on Ataxia in horses and another by Neil Hudson on Equine dysphagia.

Certainly there was ample scope for student learning and I think the AVS organisers can be congratulated on putting together such a good congress.

Further career paths

I alluded earlier to the interest shown by students in further learning after obtaining their degree and coming into practice. All the 4th and 5th year students were aware of the requirement to complete a professional development phase (PDP) with the RCVS.

I was very pleased to find an interest in further RCVS qualifications, namely the RCVS certificates. Students were well aware of the clinical certificates available and were very interested in the hopeful certificate in SAC medicine and surgery.

They showed a surprising interest in the Certificate of Advanced Veterinary Practice (AVP) run by VetLearning through Middlesex University. This certificate includes the real building blocks for becoming a successful practitioner, e.g. communication skills, evidence-based medicine, clinical audit and clinical governance.

Modern students are highly motivated to keep on learning. There was interest shown in more advanced qualifications such as the Middlesex MSc in Advanced Veterinary Practice and even the Middlesex DProf.

The students were particularly keen on the idea of work-based learning with all these qualifications obtainable while still working full-time in general practice.

Obviously there were many more ladies at the career fayre than men so the fact that the modern certificates were modular and could be completed either slowly over a number of years or with breaks between modules seemed particularly attractive.

Modern veterinary students should be congratulated on their enthusiasm for continuing education past their graduation as veterinary surgeons. Veterinary societies should continue to support veterinary students.

The AVS congress is a very worthwhile event and I hope that the 2014 congress will be as good as the 2013 one.