Helping staff answer the vaccine question with an unbiased approach


In today's age of rapid information dissemination, anticipate various media outlets to publicly air the veterinary industry's debate over vaccine protocol ad libitum.

In today's age of rapid information dissemination, anticipate various media outlets to publicly air the veterinary industry's debate over vaccine protocol ad libitum. Whether the Internet, television networks or printed media report all aspects of the controversy accurately and fairly is beside the point. What matters is your clients' perception of the issues, and the anticipated confusion arising from conflicting and sometimes sensationalistic opinion.

Figure 1.

The opinion of proper vaccine protocol depends on who is being asked. Drug companies, veterinary associations and individuals of doctor of veterinary medicine all have their own thoughts. Even your own employees may have strong opinions, of which you are not aware.

Other articles in this publication present the scientific evidence and legal issues guiding the informed practitioner to a logical action plan for his/her practice. This article will not address what is or is not a proper vaccine protocol. Rather, it offers suggestions for adeptly managing client inquiries and efficiently communicating correct, unbiased information in accord with your practice's preventative medicine protocols.

Responding to phone calls

How do your receptionists respond to existing or potential clients calling to say they just read or heard that animals are being over-vaccinated and want to know the hospital's recommendations? Would you be embarrassed or proud of the information conveyed? Could every one of your practice's employees succinctly and accurately answer the probing questions of an investigative reporter?

We know the answers to these questions. As consultants, we often pose as undercover agents at practice owners' requests. We call practices as prospective clients, asking everything from prices for a spay or neuter to whether vaccines are necessary or not.

We have called practices located in the east, west, north and south. The answer to the vaccine question, although varied, carries one common theme: Each employee has very specific opinions on the subject that are not necessarily based in fact or practice protocols. After discussing our findings with each practitioner, we discovered not all voiced receptionist opinions equaled that of the doctors'.

Conflicting information

With Internet access, magazines, newspapers and television, your clients have probably seen, read and formed an opinion already as to whether their pets should be vaccinated yearly, every three years, or not at all. Perhaps your employees have similarly come to their own conclusions, without specific and ongoing guidance through clearly communicated practice policies.

When veterinary hospital receptionists are cold-called about vaccinations, they do not necessarily have the insight to know where the client's opinion is currently situated. A receptionist who states without qualification that vaccines must be given as in prior years, can easily lose the client who has concern based on personal research leading to a different conclusion.

On the other side of the coin, the receptionist who says, "Yes, veterinarians have been over-vaccinating all these years and we are changing our protocol," may have just lost the client fearful of her pet ending up with some deadly disease due to inadequate protection. Besides, receptionists communicating the message that the veterinary industry has been over-vaccinating can be misinterpreted by some clients as admittance to unnecessary procedures historically recommended strictly for practice cash inflow benefit.

Consider this true and actual response to our vaccination question by a hospital receptionist: "The whole vaccination question is blown way out of proportion. Your cat absolutely needs to be vaccinated every year. We guarantee that nothing bad will happen to it from vaccines."

Guarantee? Think of the lawsuit if my pet had had an allergic reaction to the vaccination and died. State laws may be changing rapidly to define clients as "caregivers" rather than simply owners of chattel property. Such eventuality opens the hospital to higher probabilities of liability lawsuits that extend to emotional loss rewards.

Don't think this is happening in your practice? Think again. All doctors we spoke to after clandestine calls, were surprised at the misinformation and personal opinions their practice receptionists provided. Within the same practice entities, different employees communicated widely varying recommendations.

Making a statement

So what is the proper response? It depends on your practice and leadership in establishing solid policies and training. One practice's response might be different from another's. For example, if you are a practitioner who has extensively read current scientific information and plans on strictly following vaccine manufacturer label recommendations until they change, or adequate peer review studies lead to your comfort level of protocol changes without label support, your practice receptionist will be giving a uniform response that reflects those guidelines.

Such a response might be worded something such as:

"With the ever increasing breakthroughs in science and advances in medicine, vaccination protocols are under continuous review and modification. Currently, we follow vaccine label recommendations for pets, since research is not conclusive as to adequacy of protective immunity duration. You likely have additional questions. Let's set up an appointment this week for you to meet with the doctor."

Some practice owners will embrace a modified approach, which also acknowledges the fact of ongoing debate, but takes a more customized approach. At such a practice, the response may be something such as:

"With the ever increasing breakthroughs in science and advances in medicine, the vaccine protocols are under continuous review by the veterinary industry. We believe each pet's vaccine protocol should be individualized through discussion with the doctor; then you and the doctor can set up the best plan based on your pets' needs and most current scientific evidence. May I set up an office appointment for you and the doctor to decide on the best vaccine protocol for your pet?"

Increasingly, veterinarians are embracing the concept that vaccine protocols should be customized from pet to pet, depending on many variables. For example, is the pet an indoor or outdoor animal? Is it exposed to other animals? Does the client take the pet shopping at pet stores? These are a few of the many questions a client can be asked to help customize a vaccine program that protects the pet while educating the client and calming fears.

Taking the extra step

Let's take this concept a step further. Professional staff can envision many questions to ask clients when customizing a vaccine program. Why not standardize the protocols for gathering information in a logical fashion, which enhances patient records, and provides the client with written information that can be taken home and shared? Such an interview checklist can be used by a veterinary technician or assistant to gather the information prior to the doctor's interaction with the client during the wellness office visit.

Thanks to Dr. Glen Rieger from Fairbanks Animal Clinic in Houston for graciously sharing a copy of his practice's checklist. We used his outline as the basis for the example on page 44. Please use this example to customize a form that reflects your own practice's philosophy, geographic area, client base, insect type, stray pet population, and other pet risk factors. You might want to incorporate language for informed consent documentation purposes, with a signature line for client sign off.

A first step before designing employee response scripts is that practice leadership must come to a conclusion of current vaccine protocols and guidelines for dogs, cats or any other species in the practice. With a consensus of opinion led by the chief of staff, a clear and common voice can be expressed through written scripts and role playing.

Remember, the telephone is often the first contact any existing or potential client has with your practice in regard to issues of proper animal care. While telephone receptionists should be informative, friendly, and helpful, they are not doctors of veterinary medicine. As such, your non-veterinary employees should not be handing out diagnoses, opinions, or extensive scientific or medical information that may be erroneous. The primary responsibility of the receptionist at the time of a telephone call should be to address the clients' needs by establishing an appointment to discuss any concerns they have. Depending on the media exposure in your area, and the extent to which your client surfs the Internet, expect client calls to your hospital regarding appropriate vaccine protocols. Receptionists should adeptly and intelligently respond in accord with medically directed hospital policies.

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