Fear Free optometry
Learn how this practice owner's visit to the optometrist strengthened his understanding of the anxiety, stress, and fear pets undergo during visits, plus how it sparked positive change in his own clinic.
One year after my wife, Dr Amy Shirley, and I were married, I was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. To say that diagnosis came as a shock is quite an understatement. My life was forever altered, but I am thankful to live in an era of exceptional medical care. While my lifestyle certainly changed that day, I’m not really hindered from living a fairly normal life. Recent technology has made it so most people would have no idea I have a health condition.
One of the results of being diagnosed with a chronic disease is that I frequently see various healthcare professionals. My endocrinologist requires that I receive a digital scan of my retinas annually. During my most recent visit to the optometrist, I experienced what I can best describe as a “PTSD moment,” and it helped me to better understand how some of our animal patients feel when they visit our veterinary hospital. I walked into Focus Eyecare and was warmly greeted by the staff. I had a seat and completed my paperwork as normal. After a very brief wait, I was led to the imaging room. Up until this point in my visit, everything was going well, and I was not feeling any level of anxiety. However, the moment the technician began my exam, my unconscious brain took over.
The first part of the exam was a simple focus test. As I put my chin on the rest of the diagnostic machine, my eyes immediately began to water. (When I say water, I mean they started pouring like I was watching the final scene of Where the Red Fern Grows when young Billy is burying Little Ann beside Old Dan.) I believe that my body was reacting to past experiences at my previous optometrist’s office. There, each eye exam included 1 of the machines discharging a short blast of air straight into my open eye. This would always cause me to tear up. Now, in anticipation of that test, my body was acting on its own. We made it through the first part of my exam, but I had to constantly wipe the tears away from my eyes.
When we made it to the pressure test portion of my exam, I made a comment to my technician that my body had been bracing for this moment since I had first placed my head on the chin rest. We laughed for a second about my tear production. She looked at me and said, “You know we have never blown that puff of air in your eyes since you’ve been seeing us. We haven’t used that method in many years.” That was when I told her that I finally understood how some of our patients at Family Pet Health seem to react when they come in for veterinary visits.
Despite being a Fear Free certified practice and striving to provide an enjoyable experience for both pet and owner, many of our patients suffer from increased levels of fear, anxiety, and stress from the moment they pull into our parking lot. These emotions are usually not the result of anything they have encountered within our building, but rather in their past experiences elsewhere. Cats and dogs who exhibit a great distrust for our team members are often uncooperative, which can pose a challenge when we are trying to diagnose and treat them.
I wish we could just have a quick conversation with our patients and explain that we are not trying to cause them pain, and if they would just sit still for a moment, we would be finished much faster. Instead, we must slow things down and simply try to earn their trust as we work to resolve their problems. Sometimes, we cannot even complete the exam and must reschedule with the patient being prescribed pre-visit pharmaceuticals. When we can successfully overcome the patient’s fears and complete our exams and treatments, it’s even more satisfying knowing we did so without further damaging the animal’s emotional health.
I am proud to say that 100% of my team is sold on the mission of Fear Free—to practice veterinary medicine in such a way that works to minimize the fear, anxiety, and stress that our patients may experience during their visit to our veterinary hospital. The proof that it works can be seen in our patients that have experienced a #FearFreeVetVisit. Watching a puppy enthusiastically pull his owner through our front door so that he can jump right on the scale to get his whipped cream cone warms my heart. Having clients post positive reviews on social media for all who will listen about how their pet loves going to the veterinarian’s office motivates our team to stay mission-minded each day. Hearing my LVMT, who is celebrating a work anniversary say, “I love working here; I haven’t been bitten one time!” makes me laugh and affirms that we are creating a special work environment.
I now have a better appreciation for the stress that some of our patients are dealing with when they enter our hospital doors. It has strengthened my desire to provide a positive environment in which our team can respond to the pet’s needs. I am not sure if my body will ever relax and stop gushing tears at the optometrist’s office, but I hope over time I will become desensitized to placing my chin on the rest of the diagnostic machine. Maybe on my next visit, I will take my own whipped cream cone.
Michael Shirley, along with his wife, Dr Amy Shirley, own Family Pet Health in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. They are a small animal hospital with 3 doctors and 10 team members. Michael is responsible for practice management—with a heavy focus on marketing and developing a positive practice culture. Michael created the 1,800-member Veterinary Leadership Book Club which may be found on Facebook.