Dr. Hurd and Dr. Larson say a systems approach can better equip veterinary students with dynamic problem solving techniques, and with skills for diagnosing, designing and correcting complex problems.

The challenge has become fitting the education into an already-full college course work. Dr. Hurd says the solution may be to incorporate the principles into already-existing classes.

“Our approach is to take the systems thinking and inject it into a specific piece of material they need to learn,” he explains. “For example, they can learn about bovine virus diarrhea at the same time of teaching the systems approach skills.”

That’s just what they’ve begun to do. Through this project, the team is assisting food animal faculty at ISU, KSU and the University of Arkansas in revising existing materials to incorporate the systems approach.

Bob L. Larson, DVM, Ph.D., College of Veterinary Medicine, KSUDr. Larson says he’s seeing positive results at KSU. By following a beef cattle ranch over a period of ten years, students are able to visualize the flow of animals as they enter the herd as heifers, become pregnant the first time, face the risk of being culled, and if not culled, continue in the herd through several breeding seasons. 

Pinpointing bottlenecks in the system also became a key aspect of the study, Dr. Larson says.

“By following through the years, we could go back to bottlenecks and see areas of higher-than-expected death loss and abortions,” he says. “We then can discuss how to address those bottlenecks. We weren’t addressing individual pathogens causing the problems. Rather, we taught syndromes and helped students work through the case studies presented to them.”

By taking a step back and evaluating the system from a distance, Dr. Larson says, problems can be identified more easily.

“If we have too many open two-year-olds, the problem can often be traced back to their very first breeding season, and whether they were bred early or late,” he says. “If they were bred early, they’re much less likely to be open a year later when they’re two.” We find with students, it is easier for them to recognize the cause and effect when they are close in time and space. However, when separated by time and space, it’s more difficult to see.”

Students have been accepting and appreciative of the approach, Dr. Larson says.

“They have taken numerous classes on virology, bacteriology, pharmacology and pathology,” he says. “By using the overarching systems method of diagnosing problems and selecting the best interventions, it brings all of these classes together. Utimately, the students are better able to put these ideas into practice in the real world.”

Dr. Hurd says industry response has been overwhelmingly positive, as well.

“I’ve gotten remarkably positive responses from the cattle industry and other veterinarians,” he says. “Veterinarians already working in the system say, ‘If only I’d known this before I got out of veterinary school.’”

Taking the systems approach to veterinary practice can provide great benefits to the cattle industry, as a whole, Dr. Larson says.


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“When we set up an effective health system, the farm runs more smoothly,” he says. “We are thinking through multiple years, multiple animals and multiple situations. It also helps improve the communication between owners and veterinarians involved in various segments of the industry. A systems approach provides a common language to best solve problems throughout the many segments of the industry. If we’re going to be successful, we must have very good communication.”

Dr. Hurd says this mentality can benefit individual veterinary practices, as well.

“It’s essentially a problem solving technique that can be adapted to many situations,” he says. “It would be interesting to apply to interpersonal relationships, as well. Whether it’s big industry or small, it’s a problem solving approach. Everyone has plenty of problems to solve.”

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Moving forward, Dr. Larson says, the team plans to incorporate these concepts into current veterinary education, including potential textbooks, presentations at beef and swine practitioner meetings, and short courses.

“We are starting to include these concepts into the veterinary continuing education training we already provide,” he says.

Continued evolution of the program is also inevitable, Dr. Larson says.

“I have learned about these systems by studying engineering systems, and by watching veterinarians successfully implementing the concepts,” he says. “I have learned a lot from those practitioners who I believe are doing it well, and now I’m trying to teach students what I’ve seen successful systems thinkers do. It’s a evolutionary process for me, as well.”


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