Cut down on veterinary client confusion

March 30, 2019
Andrew Heller, DVM

Dr. Heller is chief medical officer for Independent Vets, which provides animal hospitals with veterinarians to cover short- and long-term staffing needs. Doctors who work with them create their own work-life balance by choosing when and where they work.

When another doctors frustrated client shows up to your veterinary hospital door, I usually agree with the doctors diagnosis. Could it have been the communication that failed?

If you see a look of confusion or worry on a client's face, don't ignore it. Explain again in another way or provide a relatable example. (stryjek/ understand the importance of practicing good medicine, but clients often take good medicine for granted. Most clients don't realize that what they value even more than good medicine are the soft skills: effective communication, confidence, a congenial personality, thoughtful time management, empathy, decisiveness and the feeling that we truly care about their pet. They want their veterinarian to explain in a simple and straightforward way how the doctor is going to keep the pet healthy.

Some of the most important skills in veterinary practice are arguably the most difficult to teach, in school or out. Effective communication skills are what employers and their clients need and want in today's fast-changing and complex environment. The good news is that these all-important soft skills can be learned through practice and experience, as long as they remain a focus and a goal through mindfulness and self-awareness.

The second opinion

Occasionally, I'm asked by a new client to provide a second opinion about a pet's medical issue because the pet owner did not trust how their pet was being treated at another practice. They express confusion, skepticism and discomfort with the information they were given and simply don't have confidence in what was done, why it was done or whether the recommended treatment protocol is legitimate.

Clients ... leave with a bill ... their pet is still sick ... and they were never made to understand why the tests were performed or how the prescribed treatments will improve their pet's presenting problem.

After I listen to the client for several minutes and ask open-ended questions about the pet's history, I often agree with the steps and medical approach of the initial doctor. The correct diagnostics were done, and the suggested treatment was in line with standards of care. So, what was missing?

In most cases, the disconnect was simply a communication problem. Clients feel taken advantage of because they leave with a bill for hundreds, sometimes thousands, of dollars; their pet is still sick; and they were never made to understand why the tests were performed or how the prescribed treatments will improve their pet's presenting problem.

The soft-skills approach

My approach is an exercise in building trust. I explain to these clients that their veterinarian acted in accordance with the standards of care and that I would recommend a similar course of action. Then I spend time to explain the disease, the diagnostics, the potential prognosis and, in many cases, what I would do if this were my own pet. I'm offering the same medicine, but because I take the time to really talk with the client, I'm the one receiving all the praise and earning a new client, and the other veterinarian is now down a customer.

More tips on soft skills

Dive into sample conversations talking to clients about anesthetic risk and overweight pets with Dr. Ryane Englar, who helps teach veterinary students soft skills at Kansas State University College of Veterinary Medicine. What can you learn (or pat yourself on the back for doing already) from Dr. Englar's techniques to use in your own exam room visit?

• 10 tips for talking to veterinary clients about anesthetic risk

• Chewing the fat about fat with clients

Often, soft skills can be the difference between a “good” veterinarian and a “bad” one in a pet owner's mind, regardless of the level of medicine provided. Listening, empathizing and making sure clients understand us are vital. Sometimes it's just about speaking slowly, taking a little more time and asking the client if everything is making sense. I often interrupt my in-depth explanations to ask, “Do you have any questions so far?” or “Is this making sense?” If you see a look of confusion or worry, don't ignore it. Explain it another way or provide a relatable example.

Do your best to empathize with clients, explain your differentials clearly and simply, describe which tests can help rule each differential in or out, and then offer your “Plan A”-the gold standard treatment-and “Plan B,” if funds or practicality get in the way. Giving clients this choice reinforces that you also care about them, not only their pet.

And before you even start talking, you need to clarify for yourself what your message is and think about how to convey it simply and succinctly. We're all used to medical terminology-words we use and hear daily-but most clients need information in lay terms. We can also perfect our own body language to convey confidence in ourselves and inspire confidence in others.

Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw said that “the single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” Effective communication is the key to achieving success for our hospitals and our patients, more than any one hard skill or surgical technique. If you develop a positive attitude about improving your soft skills and encourage others around you to do the same, then client satisfaction-and practice success-will skyrocket.

Dr. Heller is chief medical officer for Pennsylvania-based Independent Vets, which matches relief veterinarians with veterinary hospitals.