Veterinary training and the rural practitioner

Veterinary training and the rural practitioner

by Pete Irons

The OP curriculum in 2015

While many rural practitioners have a story of a recent graduate who was not up to scratch in some way; accrediting bodies, graduate performance and other forms of benchmarking attest to the OP graduate being of a very high standard. Nevertheless various shortcomings do exist with the current 7-year curriculum. We have therefore reverted to a 6-year program which incorporates a range of innovations which distinguish it from anything which Onderstepoort has ever offered before. Like a vehicle on the production line, we are now in the final assembly stages after a protracted design and early production phase, with the first group having started clinical training in July 2015 and set to graduate in November 2016. This paper summarises what the profession can expect and their role in the production process.

The starting point for the new curriculum design was to establish a set of principles to guide the process. These included the reduction in the duration of the training, doing away with the two-degree structure, and following an approach whereby all students undergo a ‘core’ of training equipping them to enter any veterinary work environment plus additional training in a particular ‘elective’ area of their choice. It was also decided to return to teaching some material as disciplines, followed by consolidation of this material in a species approach; and to include explicit training in the non-technical skills required by a successful professional. A concerted effort to reduce the volume of information was also made.

The next step was to start at the end, namely by defining the competencies which the graduate should have on day one of employment in a typical mixed practice1. Once these were defined, a basic layout of subjects was fitted into a program in a logical sequence to reach these goals; thus the so-called ‘macrocurriculum’ was designed consisting of 5½ years of core training and one semester of elective training2.

The focus on the ‘Day One’ skills set entailed an explicit focus on the training of skills as well as the assessment of these skills. The emphasis was therefore shifted from knowledge for knowledge’s sake to knowledge that is required to perform a particular procedure in the workplace; a fundamenal change in approach to the training. The logical follow-on was to expand our facilities to enhance our skills training, resulting in the establishment of the skills laboratory which has been featured in the press of late; equipped with mannikins, simulators and other teaching aids designed for teaching particular skills.

In another dramatic departure from the old clinical year; experiential training has been expanded to 1½ years including both the core and elective components, and will be tailored to each students’ individual needs by means of the student booking their exposure using an online clinical training platform known as ‘VetBox’. This system is a state-of-the-art purpose-built tool with the added funcions of allowing the students to log their exposure by means of completing a log for each procedure which they see or do during their training; and a skills assessment capability whereby a student can be assessed on their ability to perform the essential procedures to the required standard and for this to be signed off on by a staff member.

Students have a choice of one of six themes in which they may do their elective training, namely rural and wildlife practice, intensive animal production, state vet medicine and public health, equine practice, small animal and exotic practice, and research. For each of these there is a defined set of 20 weeks of theoretical and practical training, including further opportunities to see practice in their chosen field. Of particular interest to rural practitioners, a total of 45 students from the current cohort of 125 are doing elective training in the three themes dealing with farm production and public health.

Now that the entire program has been designed we are embarking on a review of the finished product and have already identified some areas in need of refinement. The main thrust of this process is to ensure that the program is relevant to the needs of the country; and as such it will be an ongoing process. Of course the usual institutional quality assurance mechanisms are in place in the form of a complex system of governance of academic programs, and external quality assurance mechanisms cosisting of accreditation bodies, employers and other stakeholder bodies. In addition to the RCVS and Australasian accreditation which we currently hold, we hope to achieve American Veterinary Medical Association accreditation in due course.

Recruitment and selection has also been overhauled in recent years in parallel to the program changes outlined above3. We have a complex system of categories and subcategories with allocations of numbers to each. Approximately half of each cohort is selected from school-leavers based on Grade 11 results, and the other half are from students with some university exposure. In addition to the academic record, each school-leaver completes the National Benchmark Test. The third component is a score calculated from the ‘value-added’ form designed to measure an applicant’s prior interest and exposure to relevant activities such as veterinary work experience and work with a range of farm animals and different production systems. Since 2013 we have selected 190 students into the program per year, meaning that the first class of this size will graduate in 2018.

Increasing exposure to rural work

The second part of this article deals with the role of the profession in veterinary training. While we at OP have done a lot to reverse the decline in skills relevant to rural work we recognise that our students need to see more of real-world veterinary work and we cannot do it alone. With this in mind, we are proposing to increase the exposure of students to rural practices during their studies, and request that RuVASA members join us in our efforts to shape the next generation of great rural veterinarians.

The shift towards what is known as ‘distributive’ training is a worldwide phenomenon in veterinary training. While most faculties, including ours, encourage or require their students to ‘see practice’ during their studies, some new vet schools have gone so far as to dispense with the need for teaching hospitals or their own mobile veterinary services and rely entirely on surrounding practices to provide the experiential training of their students. Our hospital is an essential part of our training, but due to the increased numbers of students and the inability to provide good exposure to a range of farm animal work in the Onderstepoort area we are increasing the amount of distributive training in our program as outlined below.

The first way in which practitioners can support our training is by allowing students to ‘see practice’ with them to a greater extent. The opportunties for this exposure during the core training is being increased to four weeks at any practice, plus an optional additonal period of two weeks of farm animal practice. The role of the practitioner in this period is to allow students to observe activities in the practice and on farms, to interact with clients and other staff and to perform simple veterinary procedures under supervision, depending on the circumstances and the practitioner’s judgement of the student’s capabilities. This will be signed off by the veterinarian in hard copy as is currently the case; but students will log this exposure using the VetBox system described above and it will go towards fulfilling the required amount of exposure.

Additional exposure to particular aspects of farm animal practice in support of our curriculum is provided through the establishment of two satellite training facilities; these being large rural practices in different geographical regions which are equipped to handle larger numbers of students and offer a diversity of exposure. Students who choose either the Rural and Wildlife Practice or the Intensive Animal Production themes as their elective options will be required to spend time at either or both of the satellites under the supervision of a UP staff member located at the practice to ensure optimal academic oversight.

We are very appreciative of the support we have enjoyed from industry in recent years for our training. This support will continue to allow us to offer our students very exciting training opportunities in the form of the Feedlot School, the Dairy School, the Feedlot Challenge and the newly-established OP Farm Shop. The wildlife industry has provided a vehicle for use in student training, and industry has also committed to the further equipping of the skills laboratory.

Finally, we will be involving the broader profession in student selection and recruitment. This entails vets visiting schools in their areas and informing them about the profession using materials provided by the Faculty for this purpose. This is followed by the practitioner identifying prospective learners and providing them with exposure to their work environment as well as facilitating contact between the learners and the University’s Junior Tukkie program and the Faculty’s learner induction iniatives. Should the learner wish to apply, the practitioner would provide assistance with the application process. We are currently seeking funding for a pilot project involving ten practitioners in this recruitment.

This provides an overview of innovations to our training program. We are confident that the country and especially rural practitioners will benefit from a superior graduate at the end of 2016, and we appeal to the profession to partner with us in making this a reality.



  1. Essential competencies required of the new veterinary graduate. Faculty of Veterinary Science, University of Pretoria. 2009-07-02
  2. Engineering veterinary education: A clarion call for reform in veterinary eduction-Let’s do it! Radostits OM 2003 Journal of Vet Med Education 30(2):176-190
  3. 31 May 2015

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