Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Distance education: interview with Dr Mandy Johnson

Veterinary Mandy Johnson is a firm believer in lifelong learning.
In case you hadn't noticed, here at SAT we are very firm believers in veterinary continuing education. Veterinary school lays the foundation but new treatments emerge and its often beneficial to revisit a topic once you have some experience behind you to contextualise the knowledge. 

I'm enrolled in the Centre for Veterinary Educations oncology distance education program in 2014 and wanted to get the low-down from a fellow DE participant. Mandy has completed distance ed courses already and is enrolled in another one. 

For the uninitiated, veterinary continuing education is now mandatory in Australia, but clients increasingly expect us to constantly seek out up-to-date information. And it does keep work interesting.

As SAT readers know, there are always a fantastic array of webinars and seminars on - but sometimes one wants to sink one's teeth into a particular subject and learn something a bit more substantial. Postgraduate study is one option, distance education is another.

Tell us a bit about yourself?

I graduated from the University of Sydney in 1981 and have worked in small animal practice since then.

In 1984 my family and I moved to Coffs Harbour on the mid north coast of NSW, where my husband David, who is also a vet, became a partner at Pacific Vetcare (or Park Avenue Animal Hospital as it was then).

The practice which has a mixed case load caring for domestic animals, farm animals and equine patients has grown from a 3 man practice to now employing 10 veterinarians. All of Pacific Vetcare’s practitioners have particular areas of interest and expertise and most of our vets have completed Distance Education Courses (eg in Surgery, ultrasound, equine medicine, clinical problem solving etc.) which in some cases have led to completion of memberships in their special fields.

Why did you decide to take on a distance education course?

I found that doing a DE course was very convenient. I had access to skilled tutors who are leaders in their fields, I could study from home at times that suited me and I had none of the associated travel costs of conferences. Also because the course is spread out over months there is more time to digest the information.

I enrolled in my first Distance Education Course, because the Practice Principles decided that they wanted someone in the Clinic to have expertise in Dermatology: a huge percentage of our caseload involves animals with dermatology issues.

What courses have you completed and why did you choose these subjects?

In 2002, I did the Dermatology DE Course with Ralf Mueller and Sonya Bettenay. I had always had an interest in skin cases, my bosses wanted me to do the course and we see a huge number of animals that have skin problems.

This year, I have just completed the Clinical Pathology Course 1 with Sandra Forsyth. It is the first year this course has been offered, otherwise I would have done it before. Most sick animals that we see have some form of  clinical pathology testing carried out, also it fits in very nicely with dermatology cases.

What did you find most helpful about the program?

The most obvious benefit is the great increase in knowledge gained. The courses are presented in a logical fashion so that the basics are covered and memory is refreshed (it is a long time since I graduated) and current techniques and information are presented. If more information is required you have easy access to your tutor and other members of the course.

What were the biggest challenges?

The biggest challenge is finding time to do the course work and being disciplined about it – sometimes studying and doing assignments are not so appealing when you want to relax and do something else. For me that brings about the problem of guilt – knowing that I should be studying when I’m not [Ed: I hear you loud and clear! Even bad TV becomes compelling when its a guilty pleasure]. However, the flip side is the great feeling you get when you have finished the work and then looking forward to the next part.

Another problem is the actual cost of the courses – for me working part-time as I do, justifying the expense could be a real issue.

How do you network in a distance ed program and what sort of connections were you able to build with colleagues? (eg in Australia and overseas)?

At the start of the course we introduced ourselves via the listServ or email forum. This lead to quite robust discussion and as in most things some people were way more active than others. The workshop provided an opportunity to meet all the participants in person. The tutors from both the courses I did were always available, via the internet, and happy to answer any questions.

How do you use the knowledge you gained and how has it changed the way you practice?

Before doing the dermatology course, I found skin cases to be extremely frustrating and my approach to treatment was very haphazard, more of a recipe book format than a logical approach – if it was itchy, give it prednisolone, if it looked purulent add in antibiotics. While cases can still be frustrating, my approach now is far more scientific and logical and I am fairly confident about what I am doing. Consequently I have much more success with my cases and am able to explain causes and treatments much better to my clients.

So much of dermatology work ups involve clinical pathology (collection of samples, using the microscope etc) that it was the obvious next step for me to go on and do the Clinical Pathology course when it was offered.

Mandy does a lot of cytology now for dermatology cases.
Everyone uses clinical pathology in their practice – some answers are simple, straight forward and quick, but often we need to send samples away and get an expert opinion. Being able to interpret answers on the spot can give owners an idea of what their pet is suffering from and what may be involved in their treatment. Treatment can be started earlier, it can save the client money; it can give us clues to the next step in diagnosis and treatment eg ultrasound/ x-rays and most importantly it can lead to better outcomes for our patients.

[Ed: for those wondering about Mandy's derm caseload, she sees a lot of dogs with hypersensitivites though less with flea hypersensitivity since the advent of some newer flea products. She sees a lot of demodex, occasional sarcoptes, loads of malassezia, lots and lots of acute and chronic otitis externa, then the odd auto-immune disease like pemphigus or discoid lupus erythematosis, and lumps/bumps/warts of course].

What did you learn about your personal learning style during the program?

Nothing really has changed very much for my particular style of learning over the last 30 years apart from the obvious advent of the internet and being able to access information instantly from many sources.

I still like to take myself off in to a quiet room, usually my bedroom, sit on the bed with books and paper everywhere and write things down. I think I have a very visual style of learning and things seem to stick better if I can see it. For this reason, the workshops are invaluable. It is much easier to retain information from something that I have seen or heard face to face, than reading it in a book. Emails to and from the tutor also have a better chance of being retained in my brain.

What sort of continuing education would you plan in the future?

I am already enrolled in Clinical Pathology 2 which starts next year.

I would be happy to do many of the courses as I love learning but obviously to do something that you are already interested in, has relevance in your particular work, and can be of use to the rest of the practice has merit.

What is on your learning agenda for 2014? SAT would love to know!