Posted November 01, 2018

Cows, dogs, horses, cats, and other animals have hundreds of muscles. In traditional anatomy classes, veterinary students have to learn almost all of them.

“Students were traditionally taught to know everything—the muscles, the vessels, the nerves—of all the animals,” says Ioana Sonea, DVM, PhD, associate professor for the Department of Pathobiology and Diagnostic Investigation. “It’s this incredible branching tree of information and much of it was completely irrelevant. In practical application, students don’t need to know that much detail. But some people thought that students needed all that information to understand the whole animal. As a result, students had volume overload and were flunking anatomy.”

Sonea teaches anatomy in three semesters, and is one of the principal drivers behind the revamped anatomy curriculum in the College’s reinvented DVM curriculum that was implemented in fall 2018. Her goal is to make anatomy much more learner-centered, and give students the information they need to be ready to practice upon graduation without requiring them to memorize information they may never use in the clinic. She, and the entire reinvented curriculum steering committee, also want to reduce student stress.

“When I started, dog anatomy was taught in detail in the fall, then horse, cow, and small ruminants in the spring,” Sonea explains. “Horses are very expensive, so we were doing a lot of goats. But cows and goats are not athletes. Students are not going to treat bursitis in a cow or a goat like they would in a horse. My thought was that if the students can get the gist of anatomy in the dog, they can then apply that to the rest of the animals. This allows us to spend more time on the clinically relevant aspects of anatomy. Graduating students were book smart, but not clinic ready. We want to make sure they’re ready to practice upon graduation.”

Sonea pointed out that that students do need to know certain parts of specific species in greater detail. For cows, that would be the digestive and reproductive systems and the feet. For horses, that would be the digestive, respiratory, and reproductive systems, as well as the anatomy of the legs.

Sonea developed a modular course that broke anatomy into regions, such as the digestive system and the reproductive system, and incorporated more time with live animals in the lab.

“My goal was to make the course more practical and present the information in a more clinical manner, meaning how the students would be using the information to treat animals,” she says. “For instance, vets have to do amputations in cats, dogs, and possibly other species, so students need to learn the muscles involved in that procedure well, but the details of the muscles of the forepaw are less critical for a Day One-ready veterinarian.”

The modular spring anatomy course has been taught twice now, with Jane Manfredi, DVM, MS, PhD, DACVS-LA, DACVSMR, assistant professor for the Department of Pathobiology and Diagnostic Investigation, taking over as moderator for the second iteration. The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, although some students with a large animal focus were disappointed that they didn’t learn as many of the muscles of horses or cattle compared to the dog.

“The students wouldn’t believe me when I told them that certain things just weren’t going to be relevant in clinical practice,” Sonea says. “We added more occasions for students to actually do more techniques including ultrasonography, thanks to Dr. Manfredi, who is a better ultrasonographer than I am.”

Sonea envisions the anatomy courses as a framework that students build on as they move through school.

“In the first year, they need the essential pieces,” she says. “After that, they need to build on this base of knowledge. Details are added as they work through the curriculum. We’re adding more animal handling and more physical examples. Anatomy is three-dimensional; students can’t learn it from books. They need to actually touch animals and cadavers, if possible.”

“Anatomy has always had a heavy lab component, and we’ll still be doing a lot of that, but there will be more emphasis on finding structures in live animals” Sonea concludes. “That sticks with students better; it lets them see the purpose of what they’re learning. We’re trying to reduce the amount of straight memorization that the students have to do because that type of knowledge is rarely retained.”