Simulation-based education: Bringing communication training to life

Student and actor patient behind one-way glass in the clinical simulation exercise.

When relating to a pet owner in joy or tragedy, or amid challenging times in her personal life, veterinarian Kim Dailey’s ability to communicate is her greatest resource.

“Every patient we treat, there is a person attached to that animal, and that person has to make decisions about the animal’s care, so without connecting to that person, you really can’t practice good medicine,” Dr. Dailey said (’19 DVM).

To make those connections, and for the benefit of her patients, Dailey leans heavily on the communication skills she acquired during two semesters in veterinary school at Washington State University.

This evidence-based, experiential training is provided by Simulation-Based Education (SBE), a pillar of the Washington State University veterinary curriculum and the first and only veterinary simulation program fully accredited by the global Society for Simulation in Healthcare. 

Through communication-focused simulated medical scenarios, new graduates find themselves more prepared in the profession’s most critical moments.

With a team of up to 30 professional role-players (simulated participants) portraying a range of animal owners from agricultural to companion animal contexts, second- and third-year veterinarians-to-be at WSU practice navigating real-world clinical conversations.

“Veterinarians have so much training around what gives us our other medical and clinical skills, but there is no other way to get good communication skills besides jumping in and doing it,” insists Dailey. “Clinical communication [training] provides us the chance to interact with people in a low-stakes way.”

Students are guided through these interactions by practitioner coaches, veterinarians who receive dedicated training in clinical communication skills and facilitating small-group learning.

Dailey, who is now one of those coaches, said she doesn’t go a day without using the fundamental communication skills she developed at WSU, whether in her personal life or her professional life at Animal Hospital of Pasco.

She said she is better at structuring conversations and explanations, getting to the main point, and letting people – including her husband – complete their thoughts uninterrupted.

“Those are skills I learned in the Clinical Communication [course] that I use every day,” Dailey said.

The work of clinical communication training is immensely rewarding for the simulated participants, as well as coaches.

Frankie Yockey, who has role-played with over 1,500 WSU veterinary students in her time working with the program, enjoys watching the students gain confidence and competence in their communication skills. “Early in their simulated experience they don’t have the language, they don’t know what they are looking for, but later, especially in their third year, they are so sensitive to what effective communication looks, sounds, and feels like.”

“The program would be impossible without our dedicated simulated participant team. They’re the unsung heroes of this work,” said Daniel Haley who recruits and trains the role-players. “Our ensemble, which includes folks of all ages and backgrounds, brings the work to life. They make it authentic. This makes our program unique and impactful.”

Phyllis Van Horn, another longtime simulated participant, sees the impact too, even on herself.

“The roleplay scenarios are as beneficial to the actors as much as the students because these skills can be useful in any relationship,” she said. “I can’t express how valuable it is for these students to communicate better with the clients they are trying to serve, and it’s the animals that benefit.”