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Communications Skills Laboratory Puts Students Face to Face With “Standardized” Clients
Junior PVM student Teckla Wills is getting flustered. Her initial interview with Mrs. Laura Lawson started out well, but Teckla isn’t sure where to go. She was able to retrieve some basic information about Mrs. Lawson, her dog Joey, her concerns about Joey, her other dog that died of cancer, and her son Mark. But something isn’t right.
“Time out,” says Teckla, turning to her coach, Dr. Regina Schoenfeld, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Clinical Sciences. “I know I’m missing something, but I just don’t know what.”
After a short discussion, Dr. Schoenfeld encourages her to try again and announces, “Time in.” Before long, Mrs. Lawson is crying, Teckla is handing her tissues, and fellow PVM students watching and listening from behind a one-way mirror are murmuring how thankful they are not to be the ones in the hot seat.
Welcome to the Communications Laboratory, the apex of a weeklong communication skills rotation for junior students in the Professional Veterinary Medical program. Mrs. Lawson is actually a “standardized” client trained to play a role and provide feedback to veterinary students on their communications skills. The students work in small groups, each taking a turn conducting a clinical interview. A communication coach provides support and light direction to help each student. As one student works with a client, the others watch from an observation room equipped with one-way mirror, headsets for listening in, and a recording system that enables students to watch a videotape of their interview and perform self-evaluation. The goal is to help students develop critical communication skills that will help them in veterinary school and once they have graduated to their professional careers, whether in private practice or other areas such as government, industry, research and teaching.
“We are really fortunate here at Colorado State University to have such a great physical facility to in which to conduct these communication laboratories,” said Dr. Jane Shaw, Director of the Argus Institute for Families and Veterinary Medicine. “Not only do we have the ideal physical set-up, we have on staff the experienced professionals we need to run an effective program, as well as associates at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center (UCSHC) and Hill’s Pet Nutrition who complement our efforts and provide us with additional expertise.”
Dr. Shaw noted that the five-day, 20-hour course begins with initial client interview skills, including “getting the story.” On Tuesday and Wednesday, students learn about broader communication styles and, then non-verbal communication. On Thursday, students spend an intense morning in the Communications Laboratory and, on Friday, tackle communication skills that relate to end of life discussions. Students role play, watch case studies, provide formal feedback to other students, complete self-reflection exercises, and more.
Hill’s provides funding to run the laboratories, while the UCHSC provides a model from human medicine upon which to build the communication skills program in veterinary medicine. Gwyn Barley is in charge of the standardized patient program for UCHSC and also has experience working in Fort Collins with a family practice group. A number of her human standardized patients are now working as standardized clients at the Veterinary Teaching Hospital on the Thursdays when the Communications Laboratory is in full swing.
“This is a special project and I’m really excited to be a part of it,” said Barley. “Within veterinary schools, this is cutting edge work and it is such an honor for us to be able to work with this course. Veterinary students really appreciate the importance of this curriculum and are eager to develop the skills they need to help them communicate with their clients and colleagues. We train students not only how to communicate with clients using skills such as reflective listening, we also help them learn how to give and take thoughtful feedback. This is very important to their future success in any professional environment.”
For Dr. Todd Towell, a Veterinary Affairs Manager with Hill’s Pet Nutrition, the decision for her company to get involved was a simple one.
“Hill’s Pet Nutrition recognizes the importance of providing students the skills they need to be able to effectively communicate with their clients,” said Dr. Towell. “We know through different studies that dissatisfaction fro clients and veterinarians directly correlates to a lack of or poor communication. We see this as one of the best ways to improve the health of the veterinary profession and the animals it serves.”
Dr. Towell said that while she was observing a recent Communications Laboratory, she wanted to turn back the clock and go back to veterinary school so she could learn the skills being taught and use them in her practice.
“When the students were just starting out, there was a lot of chatter in the background about how this was the hardest thing they’d ever done -- they were so nervous they thought they were going to be sick,” said Dr. Towell. “By the second or third session, they had been through something hard, painful and scary, and come out feeling good and better prepared to help their clients. The transformation was personally very gratifying for me to watch. Much of that is a credit to this course, and I know Hill’s is excited to continue support of this program as well as expand it in the future.”
For Dr. Shaw, the inaugural semester of the Communications Laboratory is a starting point from which the Argus Institute will develop a comprehensive communications curriculum that will eventually include training and engaging private practitioners as communication coaches.
“We are working with students on the most basic communication skills that will help them in their chosen profession,” said Dr. Shaw. “Over time, we would like to introduce a core curriculum that will carry throughout the four years of veterinary school to prepare our students to meet the needs of their clients, and enhance their communication skills in their professional and personal lives.”