Veterinary students often experience ‘neurophobia’

It is common for general practice veterinarians to see patients suffering from neurological conditions, yet many veterinary students beginning their careers say they feel unprepared for those cases, according to a soon-to-be-published study led by Washington State University neurology veterinarian Vishal Murthy.

Murthy’s study examined whether “neurophobia” exists in veterinary medicine. Neurophobia is defined as the perceived fear of and resultant negative attitude toward neurology as an academic subject that leads to low clinical confidence and impaired learning. The term was first coined in the mid-90s and has been well documented in human health care and shown to contribute to stress, burnout and medical errors.

“Our study found that neurophobia as a concept seems to exist in veterinary students,” Murthy said. “Almost 97% of veterinary students say they think they are going to see a neurological patient in the future, and yet when we asked them if they are confident in dealing with neurology cases, the majority of them are saying no. I see this as being a major issue and barrier to meeting the increased demand for services, and I think we need to address it as a field.”

Murthy will present his findings June 23-25 during the American College of Internal Medicine Forum. His study was partly funded by an educational research grant from the WSU College of Veterinary Medicine’s Teaching Academy.

Murthy said exploration of student perceptions toward neurology and identification of neurophobia is key to improving student learning and can help educators improve neurology teaching and comprehension, in both a didactic and clinical context.

The study was divided into three parts: a focus group with WSU veterinary students, a 40-question survey distributed to veterinary students across the country, and a survey of instructors.

Murthy and his team found students displayed a low interest and confidence in the subject. When students were asked to compare their confidence levels with neurology to other topics, ophthalmology was the only specialty that ranked lower.

Students reported finding the basic concepts of neuroscience and neuroanatomy difficult. They also reported struggling with neurolocalization, or using the findings from a patient exam to pinpoint the cause of a patient’s symptoms.  

“Neurology is very difficult to visualize and a lot of it is very conceptual, and I think that is where we kind of lose people. That basic neuroscience and neuroanatomy that people need for a foundation can be really hard to get across,” Murthy said.

Nearly 62% of surveyed instructors said they had witnessed neurophobia in their students, and 81% said they thought students found the subject difficult. Only 32% said they felt it was easy to change students’ perception of neurology.

Comparison of student and teacher responses, Murthy said, may help better align perceptions of and aid in identifying means of countering neurophobia and help improve attitudes and maximize student engagement.

Murthy also worked with WSU Social and Economic Sciences Research Center to create a scoring tool using a subset of questions from the student survey to evaluate the impact of interventions and monitor individual progress.

“In the future, we can start using the scoring tool to establish a baseline before we give the students an intervention,” Murthy said. “Then we can see if we are truly improving their ability to not just understand the concepts but also relate to the topic overall.”

In addition to the scoring tool, Murthy said virtual patients, 3D model-based simulation, neurology games and educational videos could help reduce neurophobia.

Murthy said he was thankful to the college’s Teaching Academy for helping fund the study and providing feedback and guidance during the project.

“This was my first foray into educational research,” Murthy said. “I come from a very clinical background; I do biomarkers; I do seizures; so, it was quite helpful to have people there who you could go and ask questions to. It was an encouraging and supportive environment.”