The cutting edge

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Since it first emerged in the mid-1980s, porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome has been wreaking havoc on the swine industry. While great strides have been made in battling the disease, U.S. economic losses from PRRS are nearly $600 million per year. According to Dr. Laura Batista, a swine researcher at the University of Montreal in Quebec, bridging the gap between science and practice could help improve the situation. Practitioners, she says, often feel they do not have access to the results of new research.

"What can be done?" Dr. Batista said at the recent meeting of the American Association of Swine Veterinarians. "There are keys to bridging the gap."

One solution is to provide opportunities for practitioners to meet and talk with research scientists. This interaction provides a setting where practitioners can understand research well enough to adapt and use it on a farm. The Allen D. Leman Swine Conference and regional reunions offer forums for scientists and practitioners to present and discuss their ideas.

Another key to bridging the gap is improving the dissemination of research results. Many academic research articles are published in journals that typically are available only at university libraries and, for all practical purposes, are inaccessible to practitioners. Newsletters that provide research synopses to practitioners are one solution. Providing information online is another. "I consider that the (online) Journal of Swine Health and Production is (making) a major contribution in this part of the puzzle," Dr. Batista said.

According to her, practitioners may steer clear of articles if they contain theoretic and statistical jargon. For this reason, researchers need to focus on improving the readability of their studies.

Before embarking on a research project, Dr. Batista says, scientists should ask themselves three questions. Is this research generalized, that is, can it be taken out of the laboratory or the research paper and applied in the field? Does the proposed research have utility for the swine industry? Will the results of this research produce programs and changes to improve the PRRS virus situation in the swine industry?

"If the answer to any of these questions is 'no', the research project is likely to be an interesting exercise that is not worth the time and money being invested," Dr. Batista said. Scientists need to listen to what practitioners say they need, such as more effective use of the available diagnostic tools, and then work to meet those needs.

Dr. Scott Dee, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota's Swine Disease Eradication Center, says practitioners can take other steps to assist them in incorporating science into practice—they can, for example, further their education.

"Would you hire you?" questioned Dr. Dee, intimating that the answer to this question is more likely to be "yes" if individuals are focused on lifelong learning.

"The bugs are getting smarter. The diseases are getting tougher. The producers are hungry for information," said Dr. Dee, who delivered the Howard Dunne Memorial Lecture at the AASV meeting.

He believes that U.S. swine veterinarians have weaknesses in three primary areas: critical thinking, quantitative skills such as those needed to work with geographic information systems, and the ability to set up properly designed, on-farm trials.

"It is of paramount importance that all veterinarians, especially practitioners, develop and practice critical thinking when reading scientific journals, evaluating data, etc.," Dr. Dee said. Unfortunately, he said, critical thinking is not emphasized in U.S. veterinary schools.

Further education can help address these and other weaknesses. Individuals who believe that going back to school fulltime is not practical, Dr. Dee says, should be aware that alternatives exist. Many U.S. universities are creating programs to meet the needs of busy veterinarians who have families and full-time employment. "One size does not fit all," Dr. Dee said. "There are many opportunities."

One example is a so-called rotation approach, in which students participate in intensive, two-week courses that focus on a particular subject, such as epidemiology or nutrition. Certificate programs, such as the Executive Veterinary Program offered at the University of Illinois, consist of a series of coordinated learning sessions in which participants attend classes and complete projects. Short courses cover specific topics over one or two days. The University of Minnesota, for example, offers a short course on the development of quantitative skills for practitioners. "This is a great way to focus on one of the missing pieces," Dr. Dee said.

Many other options exist. Weekend graduate programs cater to working veterinarians. Veterinarians can also earn board certification or attend continuing education forums, such as the AASV annual meeting, the Iowa State swine disease conference, and the International Pig Veterinary Society Congress. These meetings often also provide educational materials that can be used while traveling, including CDs or electronic mailings.

According to Dr. Dee, another tried-and-true method for furthering education is participating in peer groups. These groups consist of six to eight practitioners, along with an academic or industry veterinarian, who meet on a regular basis, visit practices and farms, and discuss issues. Dr. Dee says these groups are a great way to gain insight into solving problems, seeing new building styles, and building networks. He has also made several trips abroad to learn what swine veterinarians are doing in other countries such as Mexico and France.

Finally, mentoring is another big part of the lifelong learning process. "We don't do enough mentoring," he said. "Don't shy away from helping people who come to you."

Dr. Dee recognizes that although many educational programs and opportunities exist, there are many barriers. Time constraints, changes in practice focus, family commitments, and other pitfalls challenge an individual's ability to complete courses, conduct studies, and publish results.

Dr. Batista echoed this sentiment with regard to graduate school. She said the experience of graduate school might put some people out of their comfort zone. "You have to be humble," she said. "You may have 20-year-olds explaining things to you."

Before embarking on an educational endeavor, Dr. Dee says it is important to have a clear plan in mind. "Talk to your family, talk to your practice mates about your plan," Dr. Dee said. Be sure you are committed not only to finishing a program, but also to publishing results. The goal is to have an impact.

The aim, Dr. Dee says, is that "the knowledge you make is greater than the knowledge you take. When you leave the profession, leave it in better shape than when you entered."