Skip to main content

Community of caring

  • Fourth-year DVM student Christy Pujianto speaks to a client and their pet.

    Community of caring

    New student clinical training rotation puts focus on community medicine and client connections

At the corner of University Avenue and Dunlap Street in St. Paul, University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine (CVM) students are hoping to make a big impact. 

The corner is home to the Animal Humane Society (AHS) Veterinary Center, a high-quality, low-cost clinic with sliding fees based on income, where fourth-year veterinary students have spent the spring months participating in a clinical training pilot program. The program’s success has paved the way for an elective clinical training rotation at AHS that CVM began offering in May. 

Among the pilot’s participants was Patrice Sorensen. On a particularly busy Thursday, she could be spotted zipping from appointment to appointment, giving a routine exam to a golden retriever then assisting with a blood draw on a cat before entering the surgery suite to help retrieve yarn from the digestive tract of a perhaps too curious puppy.  

The day exemplifies the rich breadth of cases that students participating in the pilot and now clinical rotation encounter. Working at the veterinary center offers a unique opportunity to gain real-world experience in an environment that sees a large volume of patients and a diverse array of clients. 

This was a very valuable part of my education. I was able to work with a variety of clients and patients during my externship.

Patrice Sorensen

“This was a very valuable part of my education,” Sorensen says. “I was able to work with a variety of clients and patients during my externship. I learned how to determine the best plan for each pet and person/family’s situation. There are many barriers to veterinary care access, and this program is one way we can help to alleviate some of those.”

The team at AHS on University Ave.
(L-R) Christy Pujianto, Kelly Gehlhaus, Lauren Bernstein, and Chloe Adams.

Supporting communities and education

For more than 10 years, community medicine groups and programs at CVM have sought to break down barriers to veterinary care experienced by those living in historically under-resourced communities. National studies around barriers to care indicate that the overwhelming reason respondents said they couldn’t provide their pet with veterinary care was due to the cost of the care. Other barriers to care include lack of transportation, housing insecurity, and inability to find a provider that speaks the respondent’s language. 

Student Patrice Sorenson accompanies veterinarian Lauren Bernstein to speak with a client.
Student Patrice Sorensen (right) accompanies veterinarian Lauren
Bernstein (left) to speak with a client.

CVM has long recognized the importance of breaking down these barriers, and the fourth-year clinical training rotation represents another resource for helping address these concerns at a local level. The college’s overall community medicine initiative encompasses student-led veterinary training clinics organized by the SIRVS and VeTouch programs, the college’s partnership with AHS, partnerships with Minnesota-based animal rescues and shelters to provide specialty and low-cost services, and donor-funded financial assistance for clients of CVM’s veterinary hospitals. 

These efforts have been supported in part by private funding, including a $1.5 million grant awarded in early 2021 that is set to run through December 2023 and support the expansion of community medicine efforts, including new experiential learning opportunities, the development of postgraduate training, and continued integration of community medicine topics into CVM curriculum. 

Among the new learning opportunities is the clinical training rotation at AHS. In its pilot stage, the rotation consisted of two parts. During the first week, veterinary students were introduced to the clinic and its staff. Then, they began shadowing Associate Veterinarian Kelly Gehlhaus, BVM&S. Throughout the week, they observed appointments and assisted when needed with exams and other medical procedures as well as conducted supervised spay and neuter surgeries.  

Veterinarian Kelly Gehlhaus holds onto a patient while student Patrice Sorenson performs an exam.
Veterinarian Kelly Gehlhaus (left) holds onto a patient while
student ​​​​Patrice Sorensen performs an exam.

“It’s real-life medicine and working with folks that often can’t afford health care for their pets,” Gehlhaus says. “Especially, if we need to refer them to other specialty services, which may not be feasible for them financially, so getting creative in terms of treatment options and diagnoses is a key part of the experience.”

During the students’ second week, they worked closely with Lauren Bernstein, MVB, MPH, an assistant professor of community medicine for CVM. Students take the lead on appointments during this week, with Bernstein providing mentorship and guidance along the way. That means the student is responsible for taking patient history, performing exams and diagnostics, recommending treatments, discharging patients, and conducting follow-ups. 

Along the way, students work with staff such as Chloe Adams, a lead veterinary technician, who helps them navigate clinic procedures and answers any questions they have. Adams has worked for AHS for three years and has seen firsthand the increased need for low-cost veterinary services. She says appointments at AHS and other low-cost clinics in the Twin Cities area are snapped up nearly as fast as they open. 

“I think the fact that everyone's booked up just shows that there's a huge need, especially with COVID right now,” Adams says. “So many people are unemployed and furloughed, they just can’t afford care for their pets.”

Creating connections

Veterinarian Kelly Gehlhaus (left) examines an X-ray film with student Patrice Sorenson.
Veterinarian Kelly Gehlhaus (left) examines an
X-ray film with student Patrice Sorensen.

In addition to seeing the ins and outs of a veterinary clinic, the students also have the opportunity to connect with pet owners and hone their client communication skills.

To Caitlyn Rize, this proved to be a very valuable part of her rotation experience. With a master’s degree in social work as part of her background, Rize has a keen interest in helping underserved communities.

During her two weeks, Rize says she worked with clients representing a multitude of races, religions, socioeconomic statuses, gender expressions, and language speakers. As part of her client interactions, she took away important lessons, including that the job can be helping people as much as their animals. In one case, she recommended an owner go online to purchase the medicine her dog needed but then took a step back and asked the owner if she was comfortable with using the internet. The owner told Rize it was difficult for her.

“Reflecting back, I don't think she would have mentioned that if I had kept blabbing on about pet supply websites and hadn't thought to stop to ask her,” Rize says. “This changed my plan completely, and I had to use creative thinking to figure out how to get this dog the medications that he desperately needed.” 

Gaining experience with client communication also was a highlight for student Christy Pujianto, who grew up watching her mom care for pets as a small animal veterinarian. Among her favorite parts of the experience was seeing her mom interact with clients. 

The way I look at veterinary medicine is that it’s not just about the animal and the vet, it's the animal, the vet, and the owners working as a team

Christy Pujianto

“The way I look at veterinary medicine is that it’s not just about the animal and the vet, it's the animal, the vet, and the owners working as a team,” Pujianto says. “So it’s definitely important to understand the owners, any sort of limitations they face, and their goal for their pet’s health.”

With their sights set on stepping into new jobs after graduation, Pujianto, Rize, and Sorensen say without a doubt that the community medicine externship provided them with experience that will help them succeed in their future careers.