Providing care to pets of homeless and vulnerably housed people
Giving back to the community
As vet students we descend upon a city, frequent its businesses, take up its housing and constantly call on local vet practices to fulfill our EMS requirements. A new initiative by a group based at the University of Nottingham is seeking to give something back to the local community.
The ‘vets in the community’ project aims to provide veterinary care to the pets of homeless and vulnerably housed people in Nottingham. The clinic runs once a month and is staffed by undergraduate vet students under the supervision of a qualified vet from the vet school. The clinic makes sure that the pets are up to date with routine preventive medications and provides a full clinical examination. As well as giving the owners peace of mind, it provides vet students with a great opportunity to gain experience.
Student led initiative
Students are at the forefront of the running of the clinic, from promoting the service to creating and adapting the rota, as well as ordering the necessary equipment and drugs. Many students in their clinical years have volunteered to attend the clinic and the rota has already been filled for the next 12 months, demonstrating just how popular the opportunity is. At the clinic, students get the chance to carry out all aspects of consulting. As a final-year student, I have been lucky enough to be involved in the clinical aspect of the work, as well as the set up, marketing and promotion of the scheme.
'Real taste' of veterinary life
Clinically, the vets in the community project has provided me with a realistic environment in which to practise and hone my communication, clinical examination and decision-making skills. Although under constant supervision from university clinicians, the clinic has given me my first real taste of what it is like to be in charge of and conduct a consultation from start to finish. Patients vary from rabbits to dogs, and do not always arrive in the latest, fashionable pet carry case; often getting them onto the table in the first place can be a significant challenge.
Improving communication skills
Communication is another skill area where I have had the opportunity to improve dramatically. Previously, on EMS, the vet I happened to be shadowing would pick up any gaps in my basic history taking, asking the questions necessary to build the complete picture and arrive at a definitive diagnosis. Watching countless consultations thinking, ‘I can do this, I'll remember what to ask’, does not prepare you for the mind blank you get once you have asked whether the dog is vaccinated.
"The clinic has given me my first real taste of what it is like to be in charge of and conduct a consultation from start to finish"
The calm atmosphere of our clinic allows us to relax as we don't have a 10-minute time constraint, which removes the pressure and helps us build up a systematic method of history taking. This skill alone will be a priceless one on my first day in practice.
A common request from our clients is for general advice on nutrition and day-to-day husbandry; again this has a beneficial impact on client communication. Being able to relay information that is useful and at the necessary level for the target audience is, I feel, a huge part of being a successful vet. The clinic provides a client base from a huge variety of backgrounds and animal-based knowledge, creating a need to be able to read and adapt to clients appropriately.
Empathy is a quality that I now realise is easier to learn through real life cases, and it is really important to be able to deal with your own emotions when working with the homeless and women from aid institutes. The clinic makes a huge impact on them and their pets – often the only family they have – and the experience has been very rewarding, and makes our profession a special place in which to work. Observing the happiness and the effects that providing simple treatments and routine medications, which are often taken for granted, have upon these people cannot be described. I would like to continue working in this area in the future.
Hypothetical practice becomes a reality
During the fourth year at Nottingham, we undertake a business module in a ‘Dragon's Den’ style format, where we put together a five- to 10-year business plan for a hypothetical practice.
When I wrote my plan, little did I realise how quickly I would be putting it into action. As an outreach officer on the committee for the vets in the community project, I was involved in all aspects of the set up. Between the five members of the group, we managed to gather the equipment and drugs that we would need for the first year. This in itself was a steep learning curve – we faced the reality of balancing our wish to offer gold standard treatment protocols with the actual, more realistic, equipment needed to conduct a thorough clinical examination. Stethoscopes, otoscopes, thermometers and pen torches were purchased because we could not afford expensive diagnostic equipment.
We also needed drugs to medicate the animals that we could now examine with our basic equipment; however, at first, getting to grips with choosing drugs seemed like a minefield.
The responsibility of treatment and advice also fell into the hands of students. This provided a fantastic chance to reinforce treatment strategies for common diseases found within the domestic animal population. Having to think and provide appropriate advice on, for example, worming and flea programmes, provided learning opportunities in areas where, as new graduates, we will be expected to cope from day 1 with confidence.
A worthwhile first-hand experience
As a whole, I have found vets in the community to be a hugely beneficial project. As a student who is about to go into first-opinion practice I have experienced first-hand the complexities of running a veterinary clinic. Overall, I feel that I have gained confidence in my ability to conduct a consultation and communicate appropriately with clients from all backgrounds, and to tailor my advice and treatment protocols appropriately.
Most importantly, I feel more at ease with common drugs and routine vaccinations. I feel that I will be less likely to panic and more able to think rationally while putting together a series of well-thought-out treatment regimens that will benefit my client and, most importantly, the animals under my care. Vets in the community is helping students of all ages and abilities across Nottingham vet school to become the best veterinary surgeons they can.
▪ The vets in the community project gratefully acknowledges support from the University of Nottingham Cascade Fund, Centre for Evidence-based Veterinary Medicine, School of Veterinary Medicine and Science, Dogs Trust, MSD Animal Health, Cats Protection and Rushcliffe Veterinary Centre. For more information, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org