4 fab ways to avoid brushing off veterinary clients
Mark Opperman, BS, CVPM
If you're in private practice and beholden to pet owners for your success in veterinary medicine, can you afford to skip the very basics of the exam room experience? (Hint: "No" is the answer you're looking for.) Here they are ...
Better medicine in private practice requires better client communication. Don't turn away from the folks at the other end of the leash. (Photo Getty Images)
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Working in a private practice is not the Ivory Tower. That's too bad, because hundreds of students become veterinarians every year on the strength of their scientific chops and technical skills, but then graduate and face an adversary they can't test or study their way through: the pet owner.
You can deeply understand systems of the animal body, instantly recall complicated medical terms and wow veterinary technicians with exceptional hand-eye coordination. A practice owner or associate who can do all that but if can't communicate effectively in the exam room just won't be successful.
But all is not lost. I'm going to assume you've got technical competency. but here are some things that can take your exam room manner from average to amazing:
The hello: Don't skip it
> When you enter the exam room, stop to say hello to the client and to the patient. Just want to rush? Don't.
When you first enter the exam room, you might be distracted. You're brilliant, so you might have been tackling three separate problems in your head as you walked in.
Slow your roll.
You're setting the stage for the success or failure of the appointment you just roared into.
I like veterinarians to enter the room, come around the exam room table (they're often obtrusively placed between doctor and client), face the client, extend a hand and, with a firm handshake, say, “Good morning, Mrs. Jones. I am Dr. Andrews. It's very nice to meet you today.” (If the client's name is not Mrs. Jones and your last name is not Andrew, feel free to substitute. Stop being so literal.)
The doctor should make good eye contact and body positioning.Obviously, if you already know the client, you can shake the hand and welcome them back to the practice.
Your greeting must be sincere and not rushed. People who love their pets enough to take time out of their day to bring them in and pay you to care for them deserve this moment of attention.
The small talk: Take time for it
> Ask questions or use notes in the file from the client's last visit to ask about life and ... whatever. Be yourself. If you hate talking to people and just want to get this over with, stop being yourself and be someone else for a few minutes. Then you can get back to work.
After the hello, I think veterinarians should spend a couple minutes to “schmooze” a little before they start talking about the pet: “It's been raining all day today. Hope it lets up soon, but we do need the moisture.” Or, better yet, you're about to learn or have learned something about the client you can use: “So, how's your son doing in softball, Mrs. Jones? Last time, I think you told me he was playing first base.”
Many veterinarians keep a log or notes in the patient file they can refer to. (You get a gold star for checking your file for PERSONAL, not just MEDICAL, notes before you came in the door!)
Once you've greeted the client, the next step is to greet the patient: “Hi, Casey, how are you doing today?” (Even if it feels a little corny, you know you want to. It's why most of you became animal doctors anyway, right? Kicking it with the cat or dog?)
A veterinarian enters the exam room and immediately acknowledges the patient. He might say:
“Good morning, Casey. How are you doing today? I see your mom brought you in for your comprehensive physical exam and vaccinations, and she also said you've been scratching at your right ear, so I'm going to take a good look at that. But, Casey, can you excuse me for a moment?”
The veterinarian then turns and says, “Good morning, Mrs. Jones. How are you doing today?”
Crazy? Corny? You bet. But clients love it!
Compare that to a veterinarian who walks into the exam room and says, “I'm sorry, I didn't catch your name, and who do we have here today and what is he here for?” (And the pet's a she).
The initial greeting sets the tone for the entire exam room visit. Only then can you get to ...
The physical exam: Talk it out
> Talk while you examine. I know you can do a physical exam. I know you can probably do it fast. But the pet owner doesn't know what you're doing, why you're doing it or what you're looking for IF YOU DON'T TELL THEM.
The next big moment of truth is the comprehensive physical exam. Most veterinarians I've seen over the years have performed very technically good physical exams. But very, very few of them ever verbalized the exams well. Yes, you're looking at the ears and the eyes, you're feeling the lymph nodes and the pet's abdomen ... but are you telling the client?
First,set the stage. Even if the pet came in for an ear infection or hot spot, take time to set the stage:
“Mrs. Jones, I know you brought in Casey today because she's scratching at her right ear, but I'm going to first do a comprehensive physical exam. I'll check Casey from nose to tail to make sure there are no other medical issues, then I promise I'll come back to focus on her ear.”
Then you walk your way through the comprehensive physical exam and verbalize what you're doing.
Even if the visit is a wellness exam, the doctor should say:
“Mrs. Jones, I know Casey is here today for her vaccinations, but first I'm going to do a comprehensive physical exam and check Casey from nose to tail to make sure she's healthy. Then I'll give Casey her vaccinations.”
The power of three: It ain't over if you haven't done these things
> End every exam room visit with: 1) Why the client visited today, 2) what you did to take care of the client's concerns and the pet's medical needs, and 3) what the client needs to do now. That's it. Three things. You can DO THIS.
At the end of an exam room visit, I like to see veterinarians follow through with three steps approach.
• Step 1. Review with the client the reason they came in.
• Step 2. Tell the client what you did and what your findings were.
• Step 3. Tell the client what to do after the visit.
“Mrs. Jones, you brought Casey in today because she was scratching at her right ear. I did a comprehensive physical exam and found that she's physically in very good shape, although we do have some tartar build-up on her teeth that we'll need to address. In regards to her ear, we did the cytology and found that she has a yeast infection. I'm going to send you home with some ear medication that Julie my technician will show you how to administer. I'd like to see Casey back in 10 days. We'll see how her ear is doing at that time and hopefully be able to talk about getting her teeth cleaned. Do you have any questions for me today?”
Pause. Let the client think for a moment about questions. No questions? Thank the client for coming in, shake hands, say goodbye to Casey, turn over the visit to your technician (who's great at client communication, right?...RIGHT??) and exit the room.
This is a beautiful way to end the exam room visit. You've reviewed out loud with clients the admitting complaint or reason for the visit, your work and your findings, and what they need to do as a follow-up. For bonus points, follow up with a medical followup call a day or two later to see how the patient is progressing.
Final takeaway: See? Not so hard.
You're already a brilliant doctor of veterinary medicine. Now you just need to show clients you care. You know the old cliche (it's a cliche for a reason): Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care.
Mark Opperman, CVPM, is owner of VMC Inc., a veterinary consulting firm based in Evergreen, Colorado, and has consulted with more than 800 veterinary hospitals throughout North America.