Talk: How do vetsacquire their surgical skills? Hand-made teaching tools and ethically sourced animal cadavers

Speaker: Professor YehLih-seng

Written by Hsiao Yeh-Ting

Translated by Wu You-Da

Professor YehLih-seng has been teaching Small Animal Surgery Skills and Laboratory, a required course for the senior veterinary students at National Taiwan University (NTU), for many years. This course aims to familiarize students with the procedures of sterilization and surgical skills for small animal surgery. Students are required to learn suturing, injecting, and how to use and maintain surgical equipment. In addition, some commonly performed surgery, such as neutering and those regarding gastrointestinal tracts, eyes, ears, salivary glands, bladders, kidneys, chests, and bones, is also included.

l   Pushing for the alternatives to harmful use of animals in veterinary education

“The use of animals as teaching tools should be as harmless as possible. It will be too much of a physical burden for the dogsused in our teachings, if we use them excessively. Thus, I think we can draw lessons from some veterinary schools in the U.S.. They always euthanize the animals shortly after the teachings so that they don’t have to go through the pain and suffering of another simulated surgery,” said Professor Yeh. “If there are alternative methods to live animals, we’ll use them.”

His vision is simple: always choose animal cadavers over live animals. Moreover, whenever there is an alternative method with similar effects, he will try to use it as well.

Canine cadavers from animal shelters were the first batch of teaching aids that the professor and his students used for surgery laboratoriesmore than ten years ago. However, cadaversusuallyare not very ideal teaching aids, as they still seep out blood and need to be frozen to maintain their condition. Also, the number of dogs euthanized at that time was rather unstable, making it difficult for the professor to get enough of what he needed. Worse still, most dogs in the animal shelters were either in bad physical condition or seriously ill. Professor Yeh, as a result, decided that it was time to adjust the way he taught these laboratories.

When Professor Yeh first pushed for the alternatives to harmful use of animals in veterinary education, he was the only professor that taught clinical surgery skills in the Department of Veterinary Medicine. Thus, the reform of the curriculum was relatively easy. “When it comes to matters like this, it will be easier to advocate your plan and vision if you are willing to dedicate yourself to putting every piece in place first,” said Professor Yeh. Later on, the veterinary department began bringing in more professors specializing in the same field. The new comers were also delighted to endorse ProfessorYeh’svision and to cooperate with one another to perfect these alternative methods.

l   What exactly are these alternatives?

By incorporating his ideas into the alternatives used in other countries’ veterinary education and training, Professor Yeh explained, he developed two types of alternative teaching aids for his classes: hand-made non-animal tools and tutorial videos. 

The so-called non-animal tools refer to the kind of tools that can be re-used to practice surgical skills. These surgical skills include suturing, injecting, and the special procedures performed on body parts such as eyes. To help students acquire and practice these skills, Professor Yeh made a series of such tools.

These tools include foam pads and puzzle mats for students to practice their suturing and injecting skills, artificial blood vessels made of silicone tubing and drips to simulate the touch of real blood vessels, and dog dolls for students to practice cleaning procedures.

“This class aims to better prepare students for the internship requirement in their fifth year,” Professor Yeh stressed. Fifth-year veterinary students at NTU are required to intern at NTU’s veterinary hospital, where they will take on responsibilities such as helping with surgeryas well as caring for animals. “In Small Animal Surgery Skills and Laboratory, students not only learn the preoperative procedures, but also get to familiarize themselves with the use of equipment. These trainings are to prepare them for the challenges of the internship. Given that students only get to perform some actual operations in their fifth year, all the courses that they took before that are simplyto make sure they know the basics,” said the professor. Indeed, preoperative procedures and preparations, in addition to surgical skills, can be very complicated as well. Practices, therefore, are of great importance in this regard.

Tutorial videos, on the other hand, are designed and madebased onneeds of veterinary surgeons, physicians, and students. These videos mostly address issues such as preoperative preparations and how to use certain equipment. Students must preview them to make sure they know the drill. In addition,introductory videos to certain operative procedures will be shown to students taking Small Animal Medicine, if appropriate. Lastly, these tutorial videos will be updated every year, so that students will not take in any outdated information.

l   Ethically sourced animal cadavers in veterinary education


Apart from all the tools and tutorial videos, NTU’s Department of Veterinary Medicine also works withthe school’s veterinary hospital and veterinary physicians to provide students with the opportunity of performing simulated surgery on ethically sourced animal cadavers, and of learning the pathology of some diseases firsthand. Under the guidance of senior surgeons, NTU’s veterinary students are allowed to perform surgical procedures on the cadavers of companion animals donated by their owners to the hospital.

In addition, since the causes of many diseases in the field of veterinary medicine still remain unknown, many junior veterinary physicians, surgeons, pathologists and graduate students will be asked to,with the help of the senior ones, examine some animal cadavers thoroughly. The rationale behind it is to help them better understand the pathological mechanism of certain diseases, and to see if there is any finding that can be of some use.

To thank the many owners who were willing to send their deceased companion animals to the hospital for research and teaching purposes, and to honor these animals’ enormous contributions, the department has a webpage, titled the Memorial Hall for Animal Silent Teachers, on its official website speciallydedicated to them. Their stories are sure to be remembered by and passed down to thefuture generations.

l   Reactions from different parties

However, not every student has the opportunity topractice with animal cadavers. Some, therefore, complain that they seem to be the “unlucky ones.” When asked of this question, Professor Yeh explained that his class is preparatory in nature. “Students will get to practice with real animal cadavers when they go interning at the hospital. Also, we will have a checklist for them to see what they are supposed to have learned after a semester of training. If they fail to meet the requirements, they fail the class,” stated the professor. That being said, most students are gradually getting used to the requirements and the design of the curriculum, so the number of students that do file complaints is really not that many.

In a world where more and more people are becoming aware of rights of animals, the NTU’s administration, with a reputation for academic freedom, usually lets each department design its own curriculum, andis,in general, for the reduction of the number of animals used in veterinary education. “Likewise, when teaching anatomy, we now use specimens as teaching aids, not live animals,” Professor Yehsaid.


l   Conclusion

Professor Yeh believes that it is essential for one to have practicedmany times before he or she moves on toperform actual surgery. Thus, students should practice their surgical skills with non-animal tools first to make sure that they are familiar with the procedures. This not only guarantees the well-being of the animals that are to receive the surgery in the future, but also helps these students learn faster when they become interns at the hospital. In other words, learning does take place, but it does so slowly and in a step-by-step manner. It does not matter if one is a professor, a student, a physician, or a surgeon. Everyone matters in this process of spreading and acquiring knowledge.

Back then when the non-animal alternatives in veterinary education was still in the trial stage, cases of the dogs used as teaching aids being misused by several veterinary schools around the island drew people’s attention on the well-being of these animals. However, every progress takes time and patience. To reach the ultimate goal, it is essential to go through several phases: 1) animal cadavers over live animals, 2) clinical animals over laboratory animals, and 3) non-animal teaching aids over animals. In addition, it is easier for classes like Small Animal Surgery Skills and Laboratory toadopt those alternatives methods, since they, unlike pharmacology classes, do not require students to observe the effects of drugs and to conduct experiments.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the introduction of harmless alternatives to Small Animal Surgery Skills and Laboratory. Perhaps the experiencesgained along the way can be of some use to other academic subjects and veterinary schools as well. 

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