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Dr. Julie Cappel owns Warren Woods Veterinary Hospital in Warren, Michigan. She served as president of the Michigan Veterinary Medical Association in 2015.
Making assumptions about what our clients do and don’t understand can cost much more than lost revenue.
I’ve been researching stress and anxiety in our profession and talking to veterinarians about their daily struggles. It’s becoming clear to me that much of our stress comes from expectations about—and interactions with—our clients. We stress about diagnoses, treatment success and our surgery skills, but the things that seem to hit us the hardest are the things our clients think about us, what say to us and how they treat us on social media.
I think there are three main assumptions we make about clients and their complaints, and if we could think differently, we might do a better job at managing the stress.
Sure, veterinary clients often check with “Dr. Google” about their pet’s symptoms, and sometimes they’re in the ballpark, but they really don’t have the medical knowledge to discern whether their research makes practical sense or to understand the tests needed to confirm that Dr. Google diagnosis.
When I ask clients questions about diet, clinical signs, length of illness or past medical history, I often get answers that don’t add up. For example, when I see a mammary mass on a dog that’s encompassing one-quarter of the abdomen and the client tells me it just popped up in the past few weeks. I know this cannot be true. I know that this really means the client was busy with everyday life, so they didn’t see anything wrong until it was seriously wrong. If I choose to be upset by this fact, I will cause myself undue stress. If I accept that this is where we are and then do my very best to make proper treatment recommendations from this point in time, I can proceed without taking on stress about it.
We think we know what's best for a patient, but it's our clients who get to decide what’s best for their pet and their situation. “Best” is a matter of opinion. We may not always agree with the choices our clients make when it comes to their pets, but our job is to give them the options we’ve been trained to give. It’s not up to us to judge their decisions. We’re there to support them in whatever decision they make without taking on the emotions or personal responsibility for these decisions. We should assume they’ll do what they believe is best for their pet and love them through any “best” decision.
We know we’re not God and cannot save every life. We understand our limitations. We assume that clients realize this as well. We think they know we’re doing our best to help them in every situation. We know how much it costs to run a veterinary hospital, but clients may think us uncaring when we give them a treatment plan they can’t afford. We know we stress over every one of their pets’ problems, but they don’t see our pain. Continuing to communicate with the public about how difficult some of our days can be is the first step in bridging this gap.
So, whether you’re a veterinary client or a working veterinarian, realize that we all care about the same thing: loving and healing pets. Clients, you need veterinarians to be healthy and whole to help you. Veterinarians, you need your clients to pay for the valuable work you’re passionate about. We’re on the same team, and we should treat each other with respect, compassion and understanding.
Julie Cappel, DVM, works as a small animal and exotic pet veterinarian, and leadership and life coach. She has been a practice owner for more than 20 years, running a four-doctor veterinary hospital in Warren, Michigan.