Back to basics in veterinary medicine

State-of-the-art equipment and glistening surgical suites characterize the surroundings at the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine's Veterinary Teaching Hospital. Board-certified veterinary specialists use an array of sophisticated technologies to diagnose and treat the challenging cases referred to Virginia Tech for advanced-level care.


Dr. Bess Pierce listens to a case presentation by a fourth-year student. Dr. Bess Pierce listens to a case presentation by a fourth-year student in the Veterinary Teaching Hospital's Community Practice program. After the initial examination, all students must present their recommendations for diagnostics and treatment to the doctor on duty.

But this clinical excellence has created some unintended consequences for the college's teaching program. While students enrolled in the Doctor of Veterinary Medicine Program were gaining valuable experience in managing such difficult cases as cancer, unusual endocrine disorders, or complex orthopedic problems, they were getting little exposure to the everyday maladies that will confront them for most of their careers.

College leaders recognized the implications of the caseload bias toward specialty care and acknowledged that such a focus could create a gap for basic care. In May 2007, they created a new academic clerkship and a new clinical component in the Veterinary Teaching Hospital called Community Practice.

''Community Practice is essentially a small animal practice within the [Veterinary Teaching Hospital],'' said Dr. Bess Pierce, an associate professor in the college's Department of Small Animal Clinical Sciences, who is leading the clerkship. The clerkship operates within the teaching hospital as a discrete clinical program focused on wellness and preventive medicine.


All fourth-year students, distinguishable by their blue coats, must complete a Community Practice Rotation as part of their training. All fourth-year students, distinguishable by their blue coats, must complete a Community Practice rotation as part of their training. The students are the first to interact with the client and to examine the patient.

''We provide a broad range of services for pets,'' said Pierce, who is board-certified by the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine and the American Board of Veterinary Practitioners. Such services range from basic surgical and medical needs to preventative health care.

Taking preventative measures such as vaccinations, de-worming, dentistry, and helping your pet maintain a healthy weight are important for keeping your pet fit in the long run, Pierce said.

While it is very important for students to see the advanced cases the referral hospital brings in, she said it is equally important for them to see the more common ear infection or skin wound.

In the Community Practice clerkship, students have the opportunity to serve as primary care managers for the patient and client. They study each case they are assigned prior to the patient's arrival, greet the client, take a patient history, and perform a physical examination on the animal. After developing an approach to managing the case, in consultation with a senior clinician, they present a recommended health plan to the client.


Dr. Gregory Troy (left) examines a canine patient. Dr. Gregory Troy (left), a professor in the Department in the Small Animal Clinical Sciences and Community Practice member, examines a canine patient with the help of a technician in the Veterinary Teaching Hospital.

Whether students are tracking in small animal practice, large animal practice, mixed animal practice, food animal, or public and corporate veterinary medicine, they are required to complete the new Community Practice rotation.

''Implementing this clerkship for our students is a win-win situation,'' Pierce said. ''The community benefits from having access to quality basic veterinary health care in addition to specialty services. The students benefit by having the opportunity to develop primary care skills that will best prepare them for when they enter in the general practice setting upon graduation.''

The Veterinary Teaching Hospital offers primary care services for clients who reside within a 35-mile radius of the Virginia Tech campus in Blacksburg. Clients from outside of the immediate practice area must have their animals referred in to the teaching hospital by their local veterinarian.

  • For more information on this topic, contact Christy Jackson at (540) 231-7239.