Dr. Ted Whittem, chair of Veterinary Clinical Sciences at the University of Melbourne. Photo: Melissa Cavanagh.

A portrait of veterinary medicine down under

What's it like to study veterinary medicine down under?

Climate and hospital caseloads are definitely different, but as far as education standards, an Australian veterinary educator says new veterinarians in his country meet the same education standards as graduates of Canadian veterinary schools.

"Students who finish our program or programs at other Australian veterinary schools have similar day-one practice skills and a similar focus on the research and scientific basis for those skills as Canadian graduates," says Dr. Ted Whittem, the University of Melbourne's chair of Veterinary Clinical Sciences.

Whittem's main job at the U of M is guiding the teaching and research conducted in the school's veterinary hospital, but he also has other responsibilities in the classroom.

"All full professors — even the dean — have to teach," says Whittem, who instructs veterinary students during their first and second years in the DVM program. "I also teach into second year of the Bachelor of Science program, so there's a bit of cross-fertilization between faculties."

Many of Whittem's students are from other countries including Canada. The U of M is home to a large international student population, and many students from Asia, Europe and the Americas take their veterinary education in Australia.

While veterinary education standards may be similar in Australia and Canada, one big difference is in the way that instructors deliver their courses since the U of M recently overhauled its veterinary curriculum.

"We have no classes in anatomy, physiology, biochemistry or all those traditional disciplines. Instead we have an integrated curriculum where right from the first year the students are learning from a case-illustrated point of view," says Whittem.

Whittem recently visited the Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM) and answered some questions about the Australian veterinary student's experience for WCVM Today.

Q: What's unique about your university's new curriculum?

Students are learning from a case-illustrated point of view. Let's say they're studying and learning the anatomy of the skeleton: they'll get their anatomy, they'll get the physiology of bone growth and how to use an X-ray to take a picture. They'll have messages from the surgeons about the surgical approach to that bone and it will be illustrated by a case, say — of a dog with a fractured leg.

Q: How does studying veterinary medicine differ between Australia and Canada?

The biggest difference is that we have a large cohort of international students in our class. At Melbourne we have a class size of 120 — about 40 of whom are international students. So the experience within the class is an experience of multiple languages, cultures and countries of origin. We have about 10 to 15 Canadians in each class.

Q: What types of student exchange opportunities are available?

At the U of M, we welcome international students for placements in our hospital. We have exchange agreements with several universities such as the National Veterinary School in Toulouse, France, the Royal Copenhagen University in Denmark and the University of California Davis.

We also have informal clinical placement exchanges where final year students come from pretty much anywhere. As long as their English is acceptable and we have the capacity, these students come and spend up to four weeks in our hospital in the rotations of their interest.

Q: Do foreign students get the opportunity to work with Australian wildlife?

At the U of M we have a wildlife ward, but we see very little wildlife. In Melbourne we have three zoos. The one that's just around the corner from the vet school is an open range zoo, and it mostly deals with African savanna species. The main public zoo in the middle of the city has the usual collection of different animals including Australian natives.

Healesville Sanctuary is a zoo that specializes in Australian natives, and they do have veterinary students rotate through. The surgery at the Healesville Sanctuary has a glass wall: members of the public can just stand there and watch. It's an open-display hospital, and it's really quite a special place.

Q: What kinds of animals can foreign students expect to see in your hospital?

We have a busy companion animal hospital that sees about 19,000 cases per year. In addition, Melbourne is a major centre of Thoroughbred racing in Australia. We have a pretty high case load in secondary and tertiary referral equine cases, so we see the expensive cases as opposed to the primary case load that you have a lot of [at the WCVM] . . . . There's the opportunity to see the very subtle lameness case or the acutely ill colic case that needs surgery and intensive care.

Another major difference is that we have no dairy cattle caseload at all in our hospital because our campus is completely surrounded by city. In terms of opportunities for exchange, some of our students might be very keen to come here and see North American dairy farms, which are very different from ours.

Q: Are there any differences from the companion animal side?

There's a bit of a difference in breeds and preference, what is a good pet . . . some of that's probably weather driven. We have more dogs than cats presented to our teaching hospital. In Australia, local laws require cats to be confined inside because they are hunters and they tend to capture our wildlife, whereas dogs don't tend to be quite so much of a problem.

Apart from those subtle behavioural differences and management differences, the actual pets and the standard of veterinary medicine and veterinary surgery are very similar.

Q: How do foreign exchanges benefit students and faculty?

Student exchanges are beneficial for that interchange of ideas, but so too are faculty exchanges. And we can probably have the student experience at each institution improved by having that exchange of ideas at the faculty level, too.

There are great benefits in travel — just seeing a different culture, a different way of life. There's a great benefit in our small profession of making contact with people who become lifelong friends and live in other countries. You develop a global network of colleagues.

Q: Do exchanges help students develop their communication skills?

There can be differences in communication styles between different countries, and as a practitioner, it can be really useful to understand that people from different parts of the world have different body language and different expectations of the way we talk to each other. You need to be ready to recognize and adjust to those differences.

If you think about communications and the cultural side of things, there are opportunities and benefits from travelling. Anywhere you go that you get that exposure, it's good.

Melissa Cavanagh of Winnipeg, Man., is a second-year veterinary student who is the WCVM's research communications intern for the summer of 2013.
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