All in the family

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For years, veterinarians practiced reactively, primarily treating illnesses and administering vaccinations. Not anymore. According to the 2004 AAHA Pet Owner Survey, 94 percent of respondents take their pets to the veterinarian for regular checkups to ensure their quality of life. In fact, 58 percent of respondents visit their pet's doctor more often than they visit their physician.

For years, veterinarians practiced reactively, primarily treating illnesses and administering vaccinations. Not anymore. According to the 2004 AAHA Pet Owner Survey, 94 percent of respondents take their pets to the veterinarian for regular checkups to ensure their quality of life. In fact, 58 percent of respondents visit their pet's doctor more often than they visit their physician.

In response to the intensification of the human-animal bond and the undeniable need for veterinarians to be clients' No. 1 information source, Dr. Richard Timmins, director of the Center for Animals in Society at the University of California-Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine, says it's time for a new approach with a clear focus on family practice. His solution: an academic program that offers a track in Veterinary Family Practice and continuing education opportunities. (See "The Skills for Veterinary Family Practice" for more.)

Program parameters : The skills for veterinary family practice

Dr. Timmins, who practiced veterinary medicine for more than 20 years, knows that family practice isn't a new paradigm. "Caring for the human-animal bond has driven practices for years, and many veterinarians today act as veterinary family practitioners, focusing on the unique needs of each client and pet," says Dr. Timmins. "What we're trying to do is learn from those experienced people and develop an academic component that teaches those skills."

The approach

"Clearly, we need to continue to move away from one-size-fits-all protocols to health plans that are customized to each patient's needs," Dr. Timmins says. The first step: assisting your clients with pet selection, if possible. The second: conducting a thorough risk assessment for the patient, taking into consideration genetics, behavior, nutrition, and environment to tailor your recommendations and treatment to patients' and clients' lifestyles.

"Customized health plans promote patient well-being and help you educate clients and earn their trust," says Dr. Timmins. "That's important, because keeping open communication with clients is key. You want clients to see you as their best source for pet healthcare information."

"Information is really what we sell," says Dr. Philip VanVranken, managing partner at Dickman Road Veterinary Clinic in Battle Creek, Mich. Sure, clients buy products and services, he says, but only when they understand what their pet really needs. And you communicate that critical information during exams and check-ups and in your follow-up efforts.

"Say it, repeat it, print your message, and put more information in the client's hand," says Dr. VanVranken. "Make sure clients get a clear recommendation from you and that they really understand what their pets need. When you can specifically tell them what the problem is, or even when you can tell them what it's not, clients get their moneys' worth. The better informed we are and the more effectively we share information with pet owners, the more marketable we are."

There's no "I" in "team"

One thing to keep in mind: It's easier not to take on the effort of educating clients single-handedly—no matter how good your skills and training. And, particularly if this isn't your strength, strong team members can offer the support you need.

"In my experience, much of the communication we're discussing as part of family practice is already occurring in practices, but it's not always being handled by the doctor," says Veterinary Economics Advisory Board member Dr. Cecelia Soares, MS, MA, a veterinarian and marriage and family therapist in Walnut Creek, Calif. "Twelve years of teaching veterinary students showed me that people are drawn to different aspects of veterinary medicine and some are naturally more drawn to contact of various kinds, including communication," she says. "That's one reason well-trained staff members are so critical. Fortunately, there's typically someone on the team who enjoys client education."

Will it work?

Like Dr. Timmins, Dr. VanVranken already sees family practitioners in action and believes that a formal program would probably be helpful for any veterinarian who wants to fine-tune his or her skills. "It helps to standardize our approach to patient care," says Dr. VanVranken. "Remember, though, credentialed veterinarians are only as effective as the care they offer."

And for Timmins, that's the ultimate goal—to improve the care and service that veterinarians offer clients and patients. The bottom line: "We haven't been teaching these skills in veterinary schools," says Dr. Timmins. "I'd like to see that change."

—By Donovan Atkinson, Editorial Intern

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