Skip to main content

Helping vets to find their professional happy place

Written by: Vet Times Jobs
Published on: 21 May 2024
Category:

Map

A world map showing the locations of the Virtual Veterinary Internship class in 2023.

One could call it a perfect storm: the year was 2020 and the veterinary profession had already been suffering from workforce shortages for several years, while client expectations had simultaneously seen a gradual increase over the past two decades.

In addition, senior staff working in many veterinary clinics had been shifting gradually – and not so gradually – to management functions, partially or fully leaving the consulting rooms and operating theatres to juniors. The result? Fewer role models, mentors and support to help grow and develop. To top it all off, COVID hit. Cue pandemic puppies, increasing workloads, kerbside consults, staff absences and clients with an even shorter fuse, but also the cancellation of clinical rotations for final-year vet school students over the following one to two years.

But good things can rise from dire situations: it was this time when Yaiza Forcada, long-term academic and veterinary internist, and partner Stijn Niessen, professor in internal medicine at the RVC, decided it was time to put their money where their mouths were.

An idea had been brewing in their heads and hearts for years that would help address the lack of support, growth and development opportunities once outside of vet school. Their busy academic careers and activities as clinicians had not allowed its realisation – until now.

The idea aimed to address the age-old problem of the skill, support and confidence gap between final-year vet school and the first clinical job, but also the lack of readily available solutions for environments lacking in clinical support and mentorship.

In addition, the idea tried to give everyone everywhere the rich experience both Dr Forcada and Prof Niessen had enjoyed during their traditional internships at universities in London and Glasgow, respectively – an experience full of role models, clinical application of knowledge learned in the past, peer support, structure to their learning pathway and exploration of career ambitions.

Their idea was to mimic this experience in a virtual manner. This could then stimulate the development of colleagues outside of the rich academic internship environment; it could then benefit colleagues who had found themselves hitting a plateau in their career development, but were not in the position to leave their jobs or relocate.

The Virtual Veterinary Internship (VVI) was born. Dr Forcada and Prof Niessen partnered with the largest global independent online veterinary community, the Veterinary Information Network (VIN; www.vin.com), and turned their “out-of-the-box” idea into reality – virtual and physical reality. A novel not-for-profit entity in the veterinary landscape was launched and Dr Forcada and Prof Niessen had found a way to give back to the profession.

What is the VVI?

The VVI (www.vin.com/vvi) is a one-year immersive, interactive, structured clinical and non-clinical learning programme with integrated mentorship, conducted alongside a regular job in first opinion GP practice. Virtual interns move through different interest areas (rotations customised to the intern’s individual learning objectives), like a traditional rotating internship, supervised by clinical specialists – many of them world experts – boarded by European and American specialist colleges, as well as university professors, all remotely. The internship’s aims are to provide all the good bits of an internship experience, but accessible to everyone, everywhere – especially for those in first opinion practice.

Dr Forcada, using her credentials as fellow of the Higher Education Academy, took particular care to ensure that the learning goals, rounds and materials of the VVI were aligned with the entrusted professional activities set by the RCVS’ Veterinary Graduate Development Programme for the developing GP practitioner, as well as the American Veterinary Medical Association.

The keys: flexibility, integration with a regular job, and clinical and non-clinical mentorship

To benefit from the novel programme, interns complete a set of weekly activities, which constitute the monthly rotations. These include case discussions practising logical clinical problem solving with boarded specialists, experts and peers, and possibilities to participate in weekly virtual interactive rounds (presenting one’s own cases in internal medicine, neurology, radiology and cytology rounds with the cases seen in the intern’s regular job).

Many of these activities count towards yearly CPD requirements. The activities are monitored by the directors, rotation leaders and many kind-hearted, experienced and trained mentors involved in the programme.

Not just clinical growth

The VVI has not just tried to copy a traditional internship experience, but in many ways has tried to improve on it. This is why every intern gets a personal mentor and the VVI also contains integrated non-clinical development elements. These elements have proven especially appreciated by the virtual interns of past classes.

Topics that are focused on include improving financial wellness and personal skills, effective communication, coping with stress, self-doubt and imposter syndrome, and career planning.

One of the past virtual interns, Katie Moeller, said: “Through this internship and identifying the perfectionist in me, I have realised that unconsciously I had unrealistic expectations of what I would be doing three years out of vet school. It helped me acknowledge where I am, see where I can grow and take actionable steps. Honestly, it’s given me more career satisfaction.”

Robert Lo, a general practitioner in Hong Kong and a graduate from The University of Sydney, also testifies to the added value of being in the programme. He said: “Having access to a mentor who is in my corner, external to my local work, helped me navigate a tricky work situation with my boss; the daily interactions with my class mates, experts and internship rounds sessions help me grow to the next level.”

The VVI offers a vehicle designed to help colleagues find their professional happy spot in a holistic manner.

VVI

Stijn Niessen and Yaiza Forcada

Not just for newly graduated

Although Dr Forcada and Prof Niessen initially designed the internship with the newly graduated vet in the front of their minds, they quickly realised that the internship could provide a vehicle for a range of different types of vets. Dr Forcada herself explained that after a period of absence at work in light of maternity leave, it had been tough to feel confident again on the clinic floor. Am I still up to date? Have I forgotten something important? Self-doubt was always just around the corner.

April Mathis, another VVI alumnus, describes the “VVI effect” as follows: “I returned to vet med in 2020 after taking over a decade off. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I am just ecstatic that you are considering ‘rusty vets’ and their return to practice as a matter of importance.”

Melissa Edwards, a GP practitioner from Georgia in the US, describes finding herself on a plateau of knowledge and skills after many years in practice. Being the “senior vet” in the practice, everyone was asking her for advice and she had no one to turn to herself to keep learning. She was looking for a structured way to boost her skills and knowledge while still being able to continue leading her busy practice. The VVI proved the right fit. She said: “After being a veterinarian for 29 years, I love all of the things that I learn every week from this opportunity.”

A pathway for specialisation

Although this programme was not created to become an official step for vets to specialise, several of the past virtual interns have gone on to be admitted to speciality internships, aiding their route towards specialisation.

The VVI has helped these colleagues develop the skills of structurally approaching cases, critical thinking and, above all, the confidence in themselves to submit their applications and realise that their personal next best step was to indeed continue their growth in the shape of specialisation.

Cost

Although not classified as a charity project, the internship is run on a not-for-profit basis in the independent, unsponsored environment of the VIN. The successful applicants to the internship therefore need to pay VIN membership during the internship and also have access to all VIN resources such as online books, proceedings, drug formularies, clinical calculators and rounds.

Newly graduated vets qualify for heavily reduced membership rates. Since this year, a one-off internship commitment fee of £240 is the only other payment required for the programme of which the commercial value is estimated to easily exceed £10,000 for the full one year of weekly training by specialists, CPD hours, and scheduled and ad hoc personal mentorship sessions.

When interns successfully complete the internship, half of the commitment fee is earned back as CPD credits or future membership discount. The other half is re-invested in the running of the programme, including a future plan to provide bursaries to individual applicants from disadvantaged countries.

What is the result after taking on nearly 500 virtual interns?

Without a concerted effort to advertise the programme, the first year attracted 50 vets from across the globe. A total of 60 vets entered the second class, followed by classes of 150 and then 200. This steady growth suggests the programme has found its target population and is justifying its existence.

During and after each class, the programme was fine-tuned to be even more applicable and compatible with busy life in GP practice, as well as those pursuing advanced veterinary training. Managing time commitments towards the programme has proven the main point of difficulty for interns, though. Through this process of fine-tuning, most now report to be able to integrate the programme into their daily job. The majority of virtual interns declared that it has been possible, though with some difficulty, to combine their regular “physical” job with the VVI.

In addition, Dr Forcada and Prof Niessen connected with other visionaries in veterinary education. Most particularly, the City University of Hong Kong (Jockey Club College of Veterinary Medicine and Life Sciences) decided to offer all of their new grads a place in the VVI, as part of a postgraduation aftercare package. This further highlights the potential of the programme, as well as demonstrates its global character and appeal.

Although most interns are practising in the US, Canada, Europe and Australia, the programme has hosted interns from more than 30 countries and 5 continents so far. Virtual interns practising in Asia connect with and learn from those in the UK, US, Australia and even Africa, and vice versa. Prof Niessen said: “It is truly inspiring to use a case of a vet from Zimbabwe to teach a vet in the UK how to still get to a likely diagnosis when you only have a history and physical examination to use in your logical approach to a case. There is a lesson in that to all of us – especially in times of a cost of living crisis”.

‘Butterfly effect’ on entire clinics

Something Dr Forcada and Prof Niessen have learned after four successful classes is that the benefits extend beyond the intern undertaking the programme. Internship alumnus Melisa Edwards describes it as the “butterfly effect”. She said: “I can tell this internship is a work of love; it is a wonderful experience for me – and through the ‘butterfly effect’ – for the doctors and technicians that work with me, as well as our patients. They all benefit from the knowledge and skills I gained.”

Hannah Pressman – the local boss of one of the virtual interns in Christchurch, New Zealand – reported: “Having a virtual intern has enabled us to get new information and fresh ideas into our practice. I recommend the programme to other practices with staff that could benefit from additional mentorship, help building confidence and skills; the effects spread across the entire team and is noticeable to clients.”

Mentorship matters

The mentorship is an often-mentioned strong feature of the virtual internship.

Pooja Mishra, a current virtual intern in Australia, reported: “I just want to say that it is a really great initiative. Love the mentorship that it provides and having done a traditional rotating internship already, this one has given me more mentorship than the previous one.”

Indeed, with each intern having the opportunity to have regular mentorship sessions with an experienced colleague, interns uniquely benefit from an independent extra person to turn to, who they can open up to without the pressure of this person also being one’s local boss or direct colleague, causing at times understandable conflicts of interests.

Finally, the mentors in the programme also report to have a positive experience. Anne Katherman, a mentor of the programme for all past four years and a board-certified neurologist, reported: “It is exciting to facilitate other veterinarians’ professional growth and to be a sounding board for the ups and downs within each mentee’s professional life.

“I believe that I have also expanded my own knowledge of the profession in the process of interacting with a group of veterinarians so invested in advancing their clinical acumen. It is very satisfying to find a use for my professional and personal highs and lows by sharing what I have learned during my career to help others negotiate their own path.”

What’s next? What can be improved?

But have Dr Forcada and Prof Niessen achieved their aim? Is the programme truly the flexible off-the-shelf support system the veterinary world had been missing? As true scientists, an analysis is conducted during and after each class (the data presented in this article stems from this analysis). In addition, a prospective scientific study of the internship’s impact will take place to measure the impact on professional quality of life, development and job satisfaction, in conjunction with Ross University College of Veterinary Medicine.

Ongoing surveys among past interns makes for promising reading since the vast majority of virtual interns report “very likely” or “likely” to recommend the programme to friends and colleagues. Its main challenge remains having sufficient time allocated to the internship and ensuring that most internship activities are integrated with the daily job.

The programme, therefore, works best when the employer of the intern is on board and supportive of the project.

Given the previously mentioned “butterfly effect” on the rest of the practice and with increasing awareness of the benefits of the programme, Dr Forcada and Prof Niessen find that more and more employers are fortunately willing to provide such support. By scheduling a mere 30 minutes of virtual internship time each work day into their schedules, interns can conduct all VVI activities during working hours.

In those instances where the employer supports the virtual intern, the combination of the local mentor, virtual mentor, and structure of the clinical and non-clinical growth programme has been shown to do wonders for the virtual interns and the clinic where they work, leading to increased confidence, job satisfaction and lower staff turnover.

At the end of April 2024, the application process for the fifth class opened, which is set to be the most ambitious class to date in terms of numbers of interns and mentors, as well as the geographical spread. Vets have one month to apply. Anyone who is a qualified veterinary surgeon with primary case responsibility is welcome to apply for the limited number of places. Unlike traditional internships, VVI candidates will not be selected on the basis of background or past academic achievements; instead, the focus lies fully on the willingness to put in the time and effort to find one’s professional happy spot.

This way, Dr Forcada, Prof Niessen and the VIN team try to bring this unique experience to more of those who could most benefit from it. Any vet can apply until 28 May 2024 via www.vin.com/vvi