Simulators give students inside scoop

When a veterinary student reaches inside Sarah Baillie’s virtual cow, a computerized system of motors guide the hand across the reproductive tract, bladder and aorta.

For the student, it feels like the real thing with pulsations, bumps and hard surfaces. If the student is too rough, the simulator moos.

Known as the Haptic cow, this $60,000 apparatus is used to teach students physical examinations at veterinary schools in Bristol, Glas-gow, London and Nottingham in the U.K.

By practicing on a model, they gain confidence before moving on to a live animal that may not be as co-operative.

The student’s middle finger is attached to a specially designed thimble connected to a series of motorized levers. A computer program runs the motors to simulate a physical examination for pregnancy checks or malformations.

The system can also be turned into a horse so students can learn the physical signs of torsions or colic.

The concept is being marketed through a company called Virtalsis with hopes of selling it to schools in North America.

The concept took five years to design and develop, said Baillie, a veterinarian professor at the University of Bristol.

“The first thing I had to learn was not designing for me because I knew how to do it,” she said.

The real job was working with programmers to explain the importance of sense of touch when doing an internal examination.

“I put my hands in a lot of real cows so I knew what it felt like,” she said.

Baillie earned a PhD at Glasgow University in computer science and decided to use her skills as an animal doctor and develop a high tech simulator.

When she teaches students, she also sets up role playing games where the student conducts an examination and she pretends to be a crusty farmer who wants to know what is wrong, how long the exam might take and how much it will cost.

Many students have the clinical aptitude but are weaker on what Baillie calls soft skills. While concentrating on the examination, they can also learn how to deal with clients and not get flustered when their abilities are questioned.

Simulators are a relatively new teaching tool for veterinary students, said Gordon Krebs of the University of Calgary’s faculty of veterinary medicine.

“It is a stepping stone between reading it in a book and going to a live animal,” said Krebs.

The Calgary school designed and built its own life sized models to teach students how to palpate cows and deliver calves with malpresentations. It also built an equine colic simulator.

The three adult cows and three horses are full sized, anatomically correct models. The calf is made of a rubber material and is placed inside the cow. It can be rearranged to challenge a student to figure out how to correct a difficult delivery.

The school has also created a small animal spay model and plans to build a head and neck for a jugular simulator.

Krebs said he had to learn on live animals when he was a student, but simulators allow students to practice their techniques safely.

“What I learned in a few thousand palpations, these students will learn in 10 or 15,” he said.

At the other end of the scale, clinical instructor Ashley Whitehead went the low cost, low technology route and came up with simple teaching tools using toys and jelly.

She mixed 16 boxes of grape jelly with half the required amount of water required in a plastic tub and added bones, toys and other solid objects. The tub is then covered with plastic film and students can move the ultrasound scanner over the surface to find the items hidden in the opaque mixture. When they find an object, the image appears on the screen as an ultrasound image.

Whitehead also inserts a water inflated balloon inside a life sized toy dog so students can learn how to find the bladder. A stuffed tiger has a shaved belly to teach them how to place antiseptic before surgery.

Her tour de force is a modified pair of sweat pants used to show students how a placenta can be pulled inside out when a horse delivers a foal.

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