28 April 2023

How can clinical skills laboratories contribute to the strengthening of animal health systems?

This World Veterinary Day, Brooke’s Global Animal Welfare Advisor Dr Amy Barstow discusses Clinical Skills Laboratories (CSLs) and how they support practical skill development in veterinary professionals, benefit animal welfare and contribute to animal health systems strengthening

Dr Amy Barstow (in orange) stands alongside veterinary students in Ethiopia.

Knowledgeable and compassionate veterinarians are essential in safeguarding animal health and welfare. They contribute to good animal health systems by keeping animals well and responding efficiently and effectively when animals are sick.

But how do we ensure that trainee vets are able to gain the experience and skills necessary to fulfil this role?

Practice makes perfect

As veterinary students work to gain practical skills, there can be many challenges. Trainee vets must always ensure they are acting in the animal’s best interest and limited clinical cases may result in low opportunities for learning. In veterinary schools in the UK, clinical skills laboratories have been developed to provide a dedicated safe, space for veterinary students to learn and practice their clinical skills and procedures using models and manikins. You might be familiar with using manikins in training if you have ever attended a first aid or CPR course.

Clinical skills labs enable trainee vets to develop their skills in key procedures such as injection techniques, suturing, diagnostic sampling and many, many more. With the support of faculty staff, students can receive training and feedback and then hone their skills by visiting the lab in private study time. This enables repeated practice of skills, like you would do if you were learning a new skill, like playing a musical instrument or sport. Importantly, clinical skills labs enable students to be better prepared when it comes to treating real animals.

While clinical skills laboratories are common in the UK they are rare in the countries that Brooke works, with only two in the whole of Africa. Furthermore, a recent Action for Animal Health case study from Ethiopia highlighted a lack of practical skills training for trainee veterinarians. With this in mind colleagues Dr. Tewodros Tesfaye, Dr. Alemayehu Hailemariam and I set out to support The University of Jimma in Ethiopia to develop their own clinical skills laboratory and the first clinical skills laboratory in East Africa was born.

It was fantastic to work with such an enthusiastic group of veterinary faculty who are dedicated to training the very best future vets. Brooke put together a training workshop where faculty could start to build their own clinical skills lab and develop the skills necessary to use it in their veterinary training. Part of the training involved building skill models from rudimentary materials. This included following instructions from other vet schools as well as getting creative ourselves.

For example, we followed instructions from Bristol University to make a suture model from clip boards and tea towels and came up with our own intravenous injection models made from foam and latex tubing. For skills like bandaging we also used our own arms and made a small donkey from a jerry can and some wood. Using locally available materials to create models will help to ensure the sustainability of running the clinical skills lab and for many skills simple models that enable trainee veterinarians to repeatedly practice performing the skill is what is important. They need to be doing it with their own hands in a way that is as similar as possible to how it will be done with real animals. It’s also important to highlight any differences that might exist between the models and the live animals and what the key animal welfare risks might be when performing particular procedures and how to mitigate them.

With proper skills training and ample opportunity for repeated practice, clinical skills laboratories enable trainee vets to be better prepared for treating real animals. This is beneficial to the animal’s health and welfare as trainee vets are more likely to be able to perform procedures correctly, both reducing the risk of errors and suffering and increasing the likelihood that treatment can be successful.  

Clinical skills labs are a win-win for trainee vets and animal welfare. Strong animal health systems are essential to the health of us all. It is vital that we utilise opportunities to boost the global animal health workforce as much as possible.