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July 24, 2018

At Harvard Medical School, the patient is bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. (He's a red panda.)

Daily Briefing

    To build their clinical skills and their understanding of the ecosystem, some Harvard Medical School students complete a rotation with an unlikely bunch of patients: zoo animals, Karen Weintraub reports for the New York Times.

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    Why study animals

    During the rotation at Franklin Park Zoo, students get hands-on experience treating animal conditions that also afflict humans.

    For instance, Travis Zack, now a resident in internal medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, "gained new insights into a rare form of human chronic lymphocytic leukemia" from his experience treating a black swan, Merlot, with the same condition, Weintraub writes.

    "We think of these as human diseases, but they're really diseases that occur across the animal kingdom," Zack said.

    Elisa Walsh, another student who did the rotation, worked with a nearby hospital to use ultrasounds to examine gorillas for heart disease. The goal was to learn more about heart disease in humans and other great apes, Weintraub reports.

    In addition to providing clinical training, the program also seeks to teach students that humans and animals "share the same environment," Weintraub writes,

    For instance, Eric Baitchman—VP of animal health and conservation at Zoo New England, which operates Franklin Park Zoo—said that outbreaks of diseases like Ebola and Lyme disease show how vulnerable people are to a dysfunctional ecosystem. "Most medical students don't get that side of the picture," Baitchman said. "Human activities can have direct influences on our own health."

    What the students learned

    Weintraub reports that students have been surprised at how much they've learned—and not just in terms of clinical skills—after their month at the zoo.

    Gilad Evrony, now a pediatrics resident at Mount Sinai Hospital, wrote about his zoo rotation experience in a 2016 JAMA article. "For nearly every disease I saw at the zoo, the simple question of why certain species, human or nonhuman, are susceptible to it, while others are not, raised immediate possibilities for research," he wrote. "Nearly every day at the zoo, the veterinarians and I would make fascinating, unexpected connections between human and veterinary medicine."

    Evrony recently said that his experience at the zoo helped him "overcome some bias that … pervades much of medicine, that human physiology and disease is unique and that veterinary medicine does not have much to teach us."

    Separately, Walsh said she was impressed by "how much diversity" there was among animal life. During her zoo rotation, she said that she learned about tricky diagnoses and how to improvise.

    While participating in Harvard Medical School's program, Wataru Ebina treated a red panda. "It's all the same anatomy," Ebina said. "Seeing an animal that looks completely different but is actually similar reinforces the anatomical concepts that we learn, which is very helpful for my education going forward" (Weintraub, New York Times, 6/29).

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