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Collaborative approach to communication training reaps rewards

This article is part of a regular series highlighting strategic areas in the OVC Healthy Futures Strategic Plan 2022. Learning Pathways: Enhancing the Student Experience. Our programs will continue to be learner-centered and will include career-oriented, hands-on curricular and co-curricular learning opportunities with an emphasis on lifelong learning.

A collaborative approach is expanding client communication training to graduate students at the University of Guelph’s Ontario Veterinary College and ultimately to practicing veterinarians. 

Communication training is a critical piece of the curriculum for student veterinarians.Communications training though the Art of Veterinary Medicine courses is a critical piece of the Ontario Veterinary College (OVC) curriculum for student veterinarians. Throughout their DVM program, students learn and practice client communication skills that they can put into practice during their fourth and clinical year of training and as they start their veterinary careers. 

A new graduate course brings similar training opportunities to graduate students in OVC’s Health Sciences Centre (HSC). 

“Interns and residents are often the ones who have first-hand contact with the DVM students in the hospital, so it is important for them to receive similar training from a modelling standpoint, to create standard language across the DVM curriculum and to really support the communications curriculum in this way,” says Prof. Jason Coe, who coordinates the clinical communication curriculum across all four years of the veterinary program.

The graduate course concept was originated by Coe and Prof. Joanne Hewson, OVC Department of Clinical Studies, in 2008-2009 and was a part of the orientation for OVC HSC interns for a number of years. 

More recently, Coe ran a workshop with OVC faculty to identify opportunities to further support the college’s communications curriculum. A working group came together to lay the foundation for a formalized graduate course. Co-ordinated by Clinical Studies professors Shane Bateman and Michelle Oblak in 2017-2018, the Professional Communication Skills course incorporates both client communication skills and scientific presentation skills with a focus on the Department of Clinical Studies Grand Rounds seminars. 

“It seemed logical if we are talking about communication skills the ability to present scientific information to our peers also dovetails nicely with that,” notes Bateman, adding, attendance at Grand Rounds went up substantively over the course of the year.

“As faculty we had to decide this is as important as surgery, as critical care and all the other disciplines we immerse our students in. There has been lots of discussion around this in the last couple of years,” says Bateman. “The course as it was launched this past year is a natural evolution of those efforts to bring this curriculum to life.”

The communication course was a win-win for Dr. Sarah Bernard, who graduated with her DVM from the University of Montreal and is completing a DVSc in oncology at OVC.

“This course is made by veterinarians for veterinarians,” notes Bernard. “We talked about very practical things that I could use right away the next day when talking with clients to enhance communication and understanding.”

She particularly appreciated the small class size that promoted discussion and sharing experiences, as well as opportunities for videotaped sessions with simulated clients to practice communication skills. Reviewing these videos on her own and with faculty was key, she added.

The client communication skills portion includes 15 modules modelled after training at the Institute of Healthcare Communications (IHC) in New Haven, Connecticut. Originally established to provide communication training for faculty in human medicine, the Institute expanded its reach to include veterinary medicine. Training emphasizes feedback, role play, simulation and understanding how to bring those experiences alive for learners.

A number of OVC faculty have completed training at the institute which has been an important component in building the graduate course. Their exposure to the training also reinforces a consistent approach to modelling communication skills with DVM students in the OVC Health Sciences Centre. 

At the same time work was underway on the graduate course, the College of Veterinarians of Ontario was looking for opportunities to provide more communication training materials for the broader veterinary community. 

Coe and Bateman worked with CVO to develop content for these materials, put it into a presentation format, identify an OVC faculty member who had taken the Institute of Healthcare Communication training to present it and recorded it at OVC. It is like a live webinar with some built-in activities online to make it engaging, says Coe. 

“We used a lot of the content from the IHC communication course modules, as well as well as some of the activities from the modules and built them into online modules that could be used by practitioners,” says Coe. “This was a really collaborative project where both organizations put in time and resources to create this program.”

The resulting video approach will be rolled out by CVO to licensed veterinary practitioners and will also be used in-house by OVC for a variety of purposes. It provides a flexible approach for OVC interns and residents who have difficulty freeing up blocks of time in their schedules for classroom learning. 

Some of the video modules will also likely be used for coach training purposes in the Art of Veterinary Medicine courses to create consistency in language “so when we talk about an open ended question, for example, everyone knows what we mean,” adds Coe. 

“This is really a learner-centred approach” adds Coe. Modules are built so learners can track their own progress, revisit the material, practice and rehearse any areas where they are struggling. 

“The research is very strong, the more frequent rehearsal and good coaching you receive in any activity where there are fundamental skills you are learning, the more rapidly and effectively you advance to becoming highly achieving in those skills. This training curriculum is really built on this approach,” says Bateman.

Photo above: The communications course includes videotaped sessions with simulated clients to practice communication skills.