Becoming fluent in "horse owner"


Clear communication is crucial when dealing with equine owners.

You've seen the symptoms. The glazed eyes and mumbled "uh-huh's" and "OK's" clearly indicate you've lost your client's interest. As you've been explaining procedures and follow-up care, you've started talking too fast and forgotten to stop and answer questions. The result? A client who's now dazed and confused.

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But don't be too hard on yourself, says Tracey O'Driscoll-Packer, a California-based equine management consultant. Talking over clients' heads is a common problem among your colleagues. "After years of discussing medicine with other scientists in school, equine veterinarians encounter a completely different crowd—a mixture of horse professionals and complete novices," she says.

The bottom line

What's worse, many horse owners don't let on when they don't understand. They won't ask questions or interrupt while you're talking because they don't want to appear ignorant or annoying, O'Driscoll-Packer says. This makes your communication challenge that much more difficult. But in the pages that follow, you'll learn the communication traps to avoid and the best communication methods for equine practice. As a result, more of your clients will hear, understand, and comply with your healthcare plans for their horses.

Making diagnoses too quickly

One of the first mistakes a veterinarian can make is a too-quick diagnosis, says Dr. Mark Baus, president of Fairfield Equine Associates in Newtown, Conn. "You start to lose your client if he senses you've committed to a diagnosis too early and have essentially stopped listening," Dr. Baus says. Granted, it's hard not to dominate the conversation at the beginning of the visit. After all, you're sharing with the client your observations and thoughts as you work your way through the physical exam. But clients have been preparing for this moment for a long time before your appointment and have a lot to get off their chests. "Unless clients feel that they're being heard, the doctor won't get buy-in from them," he says. Address the client's concerns first, if you can, and then move on to explain your own observations and diagnoses.

Dr. Mark Baus

Failing to explain tests

Dr. Grant Myhre, owner of Myhre Equine Clinic in Rochester, N.H., says that sometimes equine doctors—including himself—fail to spend enough time explaining test results to clients. "I know we all get busy at our practices, and we don't sit down and take the time with our clients that we need to," Dr. Myhre says. To combat this problem, Dr. Myhre and the other doctors at his clinic bring clients into the imaging room, sit down to discuss the case, and show clients the radiographs, test results, and other findings. Dr. Myhre accounts for this time in his charges. When he and the other veterinarians don't find the time to explain the tests, clients never seem fully satisfied. Make sure to explain the reason behind diagnostics so clients can understand that money spent on tests is money well spent.

Talking over clients' heads

Another sure-fire way to shut down communication? Use complicated terminology. Dr. Jim Guenther, CVPM, MBA, a partner with Strategic Veterinary Consulting in Asheville, N.C., says recent graduates are more likely to make this mistake because they're used to speaking in technical terms with classmates and professors. But the problem is not limited to the younger set. Doctors of all ages need to avoid the big words and opt for smaller words that say the same thing. If you report, "The horse has a comminuted fracture," a horse owner may howl, "Huh? Is it broken or not?" Cut through the medical jargon and explain things in simple terms so clients can follow.

Dr. Jim Guenther

But beware: This approach doesn't work with all horse owners. "Some clients understand high-level medical terms," Dr. Guenther says. These folks may be experienced horse owners who've picked up the clinical terminology over the years, or zealous would-be experts who research equine maladies on the Internet before they see you. Dr. Guenther recommends getting to know your clients and talking to them at the technical level they're comfortable with.

O'Driscoll-Packer agrees, saying that it's up to you to gauge your clients' understanding and cover all the bases during an appointment. "Collect relevant information from both the patient and the client, then share your findings and lay out your treatment plan in a way that's understood," she says. That means accounting for your clients' knowledge level along with their needs, capabilities, options, and goals.

Ask questions of your clients

Of course, if you're meeting a client for the first time or you're not sure if a horse owner has done research on the Web, it's hard to know whether to go light or heavy on the technical terms. Dr. Myhre uses clients' questions as a barometer. "If the client asks a basic question, one that you've covered at the beginning of the discussion, then you know you've lost them," he says. "And just because clients sit there quietly nodding their heads doesn't mean they comprehend." That means it's part of your job to regularly ask, "Do you have any questions? Does that make sense?"

Repeat information

The best way to be sure a message hits its mark is to ask your listener to repeat what you said in his or her own words, O'Driscoll-Packer says. This strategy, called active listening, is especially important when it comes to giving instructions for home care. Explain what you want the client to do, then say something like, "Just to make sure I'm explaining this accurately, would you mind summarizing what I just said in your own words?" If this turns up any misunderstandings, address them right then and there.

Another technique: Offer instructions in writing. Ask your clients to read over the information while you're still there, then ask if everything is clear. "They may not be able to read your handwriting or they may misunderstand your wording," O'Driscoll-Packer says. It's also a good idea to ask important drug questions during the visit, such as, "Have you given this medication before?" or "Will you be able to give these pills the prescribed number of times per day?" or "Have you ever used an oral syringe?" Whether the horse owner is an old hand or newbie, make sure he or she is confident about the details before the consultation is over.

Get a second set of eyes

Dr. Baus believes that having another person at appointments can help bridge communication gaps. "My assistant of 20 years is always watching clients to see if they're involved and understanding what I'm saying," Dr. Baus says. "There are a lot of reasons why we should all have assistants with us, but connecting with a client is one of the least mentioned." If you don't have a technician on hand, turn to a trusted liaison such as a trainer or barn manager who possesses knowledge both of medical terminology and equine medical conditions, as well as the particular client's level of expertise.

Mouthy mistakes

It's a little ironic that many equine veterinarians lack—or believe they lack—the ability to listen to clients for what they need, what they want, and what they don't understand. After all, they've spent years learning to listen to horses to evaluate their needs. That same attentiveness can make equine practitioners great communicators with people, too. Says O'Driscoll-Packer, "Taking the same focused, intuitive approach to reading a client and determining what that person needs—and how to provide it—can make all the difference."

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