How to create successful externships


What makes a good externship, from a veterinary student’s perspective

Suteren Studio/

Suteren Studio/

Each hospital not only practices medicine differently, but also handles student externships differently. The hospital, doctors and staff create the environment that makes or breaks the quality of an externship. Creating a comfortable learning environment with passionate mentors keeps students inspired and forms lasting relationships. Here are some tips to make an impact on the education of your externs that brings them back to your hospital as interns or doctors.

Comfortable learning environment

Set up externs with a “toolbox” of staff introductions, hospital tours, and an overview of the computer system. Clinics should also encourage staff to wear name tags and provide hand-outs of a hospital map and instructions for the medical records systems to reference for even short-term externs to be comfortable and familiar with workflow. By creating a welcoming environment, it allows students to settle into the hospital quickly and focus on the medicine.

Today’s climate in veterinary medicine involves a lot of added stress in the hospital, which may be exacerbated with student externs added to the mix. Hospitals should ensure the entire team feels confident in their ability to juggle their current responsibilities with hosting a student before agreeing to an externship. While it is important for externs to learn how to manage hectic days, days with back-to-back appointments, or short-staffed days, hospitals not ready for an extern leaves little room for them to debrief cases and engage in hands-on experiences. Consider scheduling for a mix of busy days and days when doctors may have more time to provide a realistic but productive externship.

Get to know the student

Every student has different goals. Maybe the extern already has their large animal internship finalized but wants to get more small animal experience or has extensive experience at an emergency hospital and wants to focus on spays and neuters. Knowing what each extern is interested in learning allows doctors to individualize the cases and skills each extern wants exposure to. Hospitals with multiple doctors should allow some flexibility for externs to see a case with another doctor if it fits their goals.

Every student learns differently. Some students may be more comfortable shadowing, while others are more eager to jump in. The “see one, do one, teach one” model is one of the most successful methods of learning. If the extern has already watched vaccines be given to a few patients, allow them the opportunity to practice. Hospitals can take advantage of similar cases and allow externs to take the lead the second time something comes through the door. Externs are usually nervously excited when practicing a skill on a real patient for the first time, but knowing which externs thrive or are intimidated by the opportunity is important for a positive and safe learning experience.

Be passionate and enthusiastic

Doctors and staff that are passionate about teaching will ensure positive, quality experiences, even in today’s crazy times in the veterinary field. Some of the best mentors during externships are support staff or hospital interns. Relationships with support staff are not only critical as a veterinarian but are very rewarding to externs as they are always very supportive and have pearls of wisdom from their years of experience. Interns and residents, being closer in age and recently graduated, give great North American Veterinary Licensing Examination (NAVLE) and career advice and are always excited to involve externs.

Mentors should discuss various diagnostic and treatment options, walk through procedures, and involve externs by asking questions to guide them through the case. If an extern is struggling with a case, avoid deferring them to a textbook. While textbooks are great resources, collaboration is truly the key to a productive experience for the both the student and doctor. Rather, help externs create problem lists, use differential schemes, and provide tips to work through unfamiliar cases that may continue to be used as a new doctor.

Don’t keep externs on the sidelines

Hands-on experience is the most valuable part of externing. Students spend so much time in classrooms learning the information without the opportunity to apply this information to real-life patients. Looking at suture patterns in a textbook and practicing on towels is not the same as suturing a real patient, so driven students that want to practice their skills should be allowed to jump in, as long as hospital policy permits. While it may not seem like much to a seasoned doctor, there is nothing more exciting as an extern than finding something on the ultrasound machine or interpreting bloodwork correctly. Staff should set expectations on day one about how they can participate in cases and encourage them to take the lead when possible.

We were all once veterinary students. Having hands-on experiences in a welcoming environment with doctors and staff excited to teach creates the most rewarding experiences that influence the doctors and mentors they become. The next time your hospital hosts a student, remember that the future of veterinary medicine is built upon the experiences student externs have at hospitals today.

Carly is a third-year veterinary student in the inaugural class at Long Island University. Carly is a Morris Animal Foundation Veterinary Student Scholar recipient, founding member of LIU SVECCS, has served in leadership positions like Curriculum Committee Representative, and fosters dogs in her free time.

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