Like Fish, your Vet Never Leaves School

Like Fish, your Vet Never Leaves School
September 10, 2015 (published)
Dennis Ngo

Like Fish, your Vet Never Leaves School
May 11, 2015 (published)


I’m sitting at a computer at a conference for fish people.

No, it isn’t Aqua Man and his court (though how cool would that be??). This is the annual conference of the International Association of Aquatic Animal Medicine. Yep, an entire educational gathering dedicated to veterinarians and other folks whose patients have fins and flippers.

It reminds me once again of the strange and wondrous variety of paths my profession can take. Last November I was at a conference in Prague for the European Congress of Equine Internal Medicine specialists. Currently I have colleagues attending veterinary conferences in the UK and the Netherlands. Veterinary medicine spans a wide world beyond kittens and puppies.

A couple of tables over from me, an exhibitor is talking to a veterinarian about using a therapeutic laser on dolphins. Horses get MRIs. Tigers, lions, bears and other mammals with teeth as big as my finger get root canals and dental implants.

The breadth and depth of veterinary medicine in the 21st century highlights something that most veterinarians, including myself, take for granted: the need for continuing education and training. For many veterinarians, continuing education is required by licensing boards, and for most of us, it’s a personal and professional necessity. However, recently some things that came up reminded me that not everyone, particularly the public, realizes that school is just the basic beginning of medical education and training.

When writing a piece on cancer, a subject emotionally charged for many - including me - the last paragraph I would have expected to upset anyone was this: "Most of veterinary school is the sort of info-packed blur of a distant past that probably belonged to someone else. (Hey, it was 25 years ago!) But a few key moments and phrases jump out of that rapidly spinning highlight reel."

But it did upset someone.

It never occurred to me that anyone would expect their physician or veterinarian to remember and base their practice upon lectures from decades past. In fact, I’m equally baffled when someone looks at me askance because I can’t recall the normal temperature of a cat or how much of a common antibiotic to give a dog; of course, I treat horses, cows, and goats, not cats and dogs.

I realize that at this point half of you are saying to yourselves, “Wow! That commenter was right. This vet is a hack. How can she not know basic stuff about cats and dogs and still call herself a veterinarian?”

Before you click away in disgust, I’m going to ask for a quick mental exercise.

Close your eyes. No peeking. Yes, that means you.

What were you doing in 1994?

Unless your answer is “a lot of drugs” or “sustaining severe cranial trauma” you probably know, at least broadly, where you were in life and what you were doing.

Who were your friends? Your employers? Your mentors? You probably named a few and will realize in a minute that you forgot a couple.

Now let’s get more specific. If you were working, what project were you doing? If you were in school, what classes were you taking? If you were a child, what games were you into?

Getting trickier, isn’t it?

Let’s narrow it down more. What book or textbook were you reading in January, 1994? What was it about? What was the title? The author? Without peeking, can you give a report on that book including all the key points? (Doesn’t count if you’ve read it since ’94.)

Now imagine that someone has asked you to recount everything you were doing from 1992-96. Would you trust your memory even if you thought you recalled everything? More importantly, would you want to trust the life of your child, self, spouse, or pet to someone who based all of their medical decisions on events from that time period?

Luckily for everyone, that isn’t how it works. Veterinary school and medical school set the foundation for lifelong, or at least career-long, learning for veterinarians and physicians. But the lessons and education that really count come later.

We base our medical decisions and recommendations not on what we may remember from an action-packed and increasingly distant past, but on experience, reading, and continual education. We have to. Not only can the human brain only hold so much, the knowledge and technology in medicine are constantly expanding and deepening. Those who stay only with what was learned “once upon a time” get left behind.

That doesn’t, of course, mean that school had no purpose or worth. That foundation is the basis for the rest of a career. Without that training and information, nothing else would stick. I know where to find the normal temperature of a cat or how much of a common antibiotic to give a dog if I need to, and more importantly, how to interpret that information.

When we graduate from veterinary school, most veterinarians in the U.S. swear the Veterinary Oath. At various stages in my career, those words have meant different things to me. But, the last line has always meant only one thing. “I accept as a lifelong obligation the continual improvement of my professional knowledge and competence.” 

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