Monday, November 17, 2014

Is being a vet all fun and games?

Fire up the vet-mobile, kiddo! (FYI the Lego Friends Heartlake Vet clinic is sold out all over Australia. Are we selling an impossible dream about the profession?)
Is being a vet all fun and games? The American Veterinary Medical Association is certainly pushing this angle. They’ve recently released a comic book for aspiring vets (see post here), and now comes a computer game.

It’s strangely addictive, although again very simplistic – a single diagnostic test yields the definitive result, there are two or three treatments to choose from, and the patient gets better every time. It’s definitely fun, but not sure it helps aspiring veterinarians or clients manage expectations in a realistic way (play the game here).

A screenshot from the game. A client presents their pet for an appointment. What happens next?
Granted, I’m not sure that designing a game which reflects reality better (gathering of history and physical findings, sorting helpful clues from red herrings, determining the most likely tests to yield a diagnosis based on pre-test probability, interpreting those tests appropriately, discerning which treatment options are appropriate for the patient, negotiating the best diagnostic and treatment plan with the owner, assessing response to treatment and re-evaluating the patient etc) would be particularly easy to design.

In my experience of designing hypothetical teaching cases for veterinary students, I can tell you it can take months to build a case and factor in many possible paths and outcomes.

But hang on, this is just a computer game. Am I taking it all a bit seriously? Yes and no. One of the big problems in our profession is attrition and burnout, and one of the key reasons is the discrepancy between being a vet and the reality of being a vet. Are we doing aspiring vets favours by pushing the angle that a good vet gets the “right” diagnosis and performs the “perfect” treatment every time? I’d argue not.

This computer game is based on the premise that veterinary patients have “tame problems”. I learned about Tame vs Wicked problems in Tom Chatfield’s book “How to Thrive in the DigitalAge” (The School of Life. London: MacMillan 2012).

He was discussing the Angry Birds app, but the analogy applies here:

“In sociological terms, Angry Birds presents what is known as a ‘tame’ problem. First addressed in a 1973 treatise by the social theorists Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber, tame problems include games like chess and the majority of mathematical propositions. They are problems in which the person trying to solve them has all the necessary data at their disposal, and knows from the beginning that there is a final solution or winning proposition.

In contrast there are ‘wicked’ problems: problems where there is no way of formulating the issue at stake definitively, nor any such thing as a single definitive solution. Each wicked problem is a unique set of circumstances, themselves entwined with other sets of problems. A typical wicked problem might be the economic health of a country or company, or somebody trying to decide the best course of action in their personal life. In each case, the only kind of solution that can be hoped for is a strategy that ‘tames’ aspects of the problem, breaking it into different elements and suggesting better and worse ways of tackling these. In these terms, life itself is a wicked problem.” (p112)

Misrepresenting our profession, no matter how good willed that is, can mislead vets and clients, leading to disappointment when expectations aren’t met. So I’m not sure this is a helpful resource. But have a play and decide for yourself.