Online Clinical Rotations Let CVM Veterinary Students Complete Education Despite Pandemic

Story by Megan Myers

When Texas A&M University made the decision to move all classes online for the remainder of the spring 2020 semester because of the COVID-19 pandemic, professors at the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVM) were faced with the unique challenge of determining how to provide fourth-year veterinary students (4VMs) with online clinical rotations.

Dr. Johanna Heseltine's at-home workspace
Dr. Johanna Heseltine teaches from her home

In their fourth year at the CVM, veterinary students normally spend their time at the Texas A&M Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital (VMTH) or another clinical location, interacting directly with patients and clients and rotating between services, or areas of veterinary specialty, every two weeks.

While the challenge of replicating this experience online was unexpected and unprecedented, CVM faculty members proved that with creativity and optimism, all things are possible.

“My initial reaction was, ‘We can do this,’” said Dr. Johanna Heseltine, a clinical assistant professor at the CVM.

In the Small Animal Hospital’s (SAH) internal medicine service, Heseltine normally instructs 4VMs by showing them how to treat actual patients that come into the service for a variety of needs.

Now that rotations are online, she’s spending more of her time at home, teaching with Zoom and other online resources while other clinicians manage the reduced caseload at the SAH.

“The majority of my day is spent teaching the students,” she said. “It’s been time-consuming but it’s also been very exciting to be able to dedicate that much time just to the students without worrying about running the clinic.”

Among the teaching methods Heseltine uses to teach 4VMs about internal medicine from home is using the unpredictability that comes with actual patients at the SAH.

“They’ve been looking at one of the cases that is in the hospital real-time and they’re writing an assessment or a plan for that patient using the information that they can access at home,” she said. “Those are the cases they’d be actually taking if they were on rotation. I didn’t choose them; they’re whatever happens to come through the door.”

She is also giving a second assignment each day based on hand-selected past cases that she has found particularly interesting or unique.

“My impression is that the students have found those cases very challenging, but because they have time to work on them, they’re getting a lot out of it because they’ve got enough time to really look up the abnormalities and think about what might be causing them,” Heseltine said. “I think they’ve really enjoyed the challenges and I get the sense that they feel like they’re learning a lot.”

In one of these cases, students were tasked with developing a treatment plan for a cat that developed a blockage, a condition they are likely to see in their practices after graduation.

“That case was definitely challenging, but it was a nice confidence-builder,” said 4VM Amanda Tabone. “It was nice that Dr. Heseltine was able to hand-pick topics that she knew were important for first-year-out general practitioners.”

Tabone said that while her online internal medicine rotation was time-consuming, it was a great way to conclude her education at the CVM.

“There was a lot of repetition of really important, fundamental concepts and a lot of case-based learning, which is awesome,” Tabone said. “It really hammered home some of those concepts that we need to know right before we go out into the real world.”

Having also completed an in-person internal medicine rotation at the SAH last fall, Tabone said the experiences were different, but equally beneficial.

“I’m glad to have had both, because I really love the patient-care aspect, the connection with clients, and getting to work one-on-one with faculty,” she said. “But I think the second time around, it was so topic- and discussion-based that I got a lot out of it; it was a totally different dynamic than the first time. I got different benefits out of each rotation, both equally important.”

Another important aspect of clinical rotations, and teaching, in general, is the connection between teacher and students that promotes discussion and honest conversation.

“I was concerned that I wouldn’t get to know the students the way I usually do,” Heseltine said. “I thought it might be very impersonal and that they’d just be names, but not people. But it actually hasn’t been like that. Because the interaction’s real-time and they’ve had their cameras on so I can see who they are, it’s actually been much better than I saw it being.”

Likewise, Tabone feels that the online rotations have held a hidden benefit in the increased time with faculty members who are normally much busier at the VMTH.

“I felt like we got to know Dr. Heseltine more on a personal level, and I think vice versa for us with her,” Tabone said. “We got to spend a lot of face time with the senior clinician and that was definitely an unexpected aspect that I enjoyed.”

Despite the challenges it has created, the COVID-19 pandemic has shown 4VMs just how dedicated their professors are to their success, sending them out into the field with the confidence that they will always have the support of the CVM and Aggie family.

“I am very appreciative, and I’m sure my classmates are very appreciative, of the amount of time faculty are putting in to make sure that we are getting what we need from our education to feel comfortable going out into our practices,” Tabone said. “I don’t think we can say thank you enough for all of their dedication, because I know they’re taking a lot of time to make sure we feel comfortable and that they feel good about our level of education as we’re about to graduate.”


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Contact Information: Jennifer Gauntt, Director of CVM Communications, Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences;; 979-862-4216