Managing client communication in a multimedia world

November 24, 2020
Amanda Carrozza

Amanda Carrozza is a freelance writer and editor in New Jersey.

A house-call veterinarian shares pros and cons of the many mechanisms of communication used in veterinary practice today.

Not so long ago, veterinary hospital teams had just 2 ways of communicating with their clients: in the hospital or on the phone. Then came along email, text messaging, websites, video conferencing, and social media. Although designed to provide convenience for veterinary staff and pet owners, having so many communication choices can be cumbersome and confusing.

The truth is, there is no single best way to communicate effectively with clients. Each modality has distinct advantages and disadvantages that should be considered based on your goals for that particular patient or client.

Like his colleagues, Patrick Mahaney, VMD, CVA, CVJ, has witnessed the ongoing changes in client communication in recent years and has adapted his holistic house-call practice in Los Angeles accordingly. During the Fetch dvm360® virtual conference, Mahaney shared the advantages and disadvantages of today’s communication methods and offered practical insight on managing client communication effectively.

In-person communication

Advantages

Builds trust. Having in-person interactions with a patient and pet owner is vital to establishing a relationship with new clients. “We know that if a client doesn’t trust the veterinarian they may not commit to the recommended treatment, and thus the patient may not get the care it needs,” Mahaney said.

Provides direct communication. In-person appointments offer the opportunity to say more in a shorter amount of time as compared with written communication via text or email.

Disadvantages

Requires scheduling. An appointment must be established.

Is time-consuming. “Meeting in-person may require more time than other means of communication, as it can be challenging to discontinue or delay a conversation,” he explained.

Requires extra preparedness. In-person appointments require the veterinary team to have a good understanding of the case and be appropriately energized. “There are times when you just are not ready with the answers to clients’ questions,” Mahaney admitted. In-person communication does not always allow for breaks for further research or to consult with a colleague or specialist.

Phone call

Advantages

Provides direct communication. “Although I heavily use email and text messaging in my practice, sometimes having a live conversation is simply easier and more effective,” Mahaney said.

Increases clarity. Messages can be misconstrued or unclear when received via text or email. When this occurs, a phone call can provide the clarity a client needs to feel comfortable about a treatment plan or test result.

Makes multitasking possible. There is the potential to do things when you are on a phone call that are not possible when you are face-to-face with a client, such as taking notes or researching the topic you are discussing, Mahaney said.

Attains closure. The physical separation from the client created by a phone call provides the veterinarian with a stronger sense of control to guide the conversation toward completion.

Disadvantages

Depends on location. Phone calls require a landline, cellular service, or WiFi connection. “I spend all day driving around LA from client to client, so there are often locations where I do not have good cellular connectivity and I generally have no WiFi access unless I am at a client’s house,” he explained. It can be frustrating for both the veterinarian and client if a call drops and you have to keep calling each other back.

Driven by convenience. Phone calls are dependent on the veterinarian’s and client’s schedules. Getting both parties on a call may be inconvenient or impossible.

Difficult to maintain information. “Translating the content of a phone conversation into written form for a patient’s medical records creates time-consuming challenges,” Dr. Mahaney said.

Can be unpleasant. Sometimes it can just be unpleasant to talk to certain clients on the phone, and text messages or emails may be the easier option, he said.

Video conferencing

Advantages

Provides an in-person experience. Video conferencing is a great way to achieve in-person communication. This has become especially important, Dr. Mahaney pointed out, during the current pandemic when in-office interactions are nearly nonexistent.

Enables remote visual examination. Video conferencing allows a veterinarian to assess the patient’s mentation, mobility, and overall appearance. While not a hands-on examination, it still provides many of the details necessary to make a proper diagnosis.

Saves time. In addition to a real-time video chat, clients have the option to record videos of their pets’ behaviors or health concerns that the veterinarian can then review at their convenience.

Offers a second look. The ability to review a video repeatedly ensures all aspects of the information can be appropriately understood.

Disadvantages

Depends on location. Effective video conferencing requires sufficient cellular or WiFi connectivity. Not only is it frustrating when a client has a poor video connection, but it makes it difficult for the veterinarian to obtain a thorough assessment of the patient.

Text messaging

Advantages

Saves time. Texting allows veterinarians to get information to the client without engaging in a lengthy phone call or video conference. “I love to text,” Dr. Mahaney said. “I find it highly effective and extremely convenient.”

Is concise. Mahaney said he finds that most clients do not send lengthy text messages. Therefore, communication tends to be more concise and quicker.

Provides control. When engaging with a difficult client, text messaging provides veterinarians with the opportunity to present salient points without having to experience the verbal irritations of a particular client.

Is easily shareable. If more than 1 owner needs to be updated, sending a text message to multiple parties ensures everyone receives the same information without having to make additional phone calls.

Disadvantages

Is device-specific. Because Mahaney’s phone and computer are Apple products, texts from non-Apple users are only accessible on his phone, not on his computer or iPad. This poses some inconveniences related to copying information from text messages to medical records.

Communicates urgency. “In the hierarchy of information urgency, most pet owners perceive text messages to have greater importance than emails or other forms of communication that permit a lapse of time between sending and interpreting messages,” he explained. So, clients who send a text may expect a response right away, regardless of the time of day or your location.

Email

Advantages

Saves time. Emailing makes it easy to provide information to a client without engaging in a time-consuming phone call or video conference.

Offers ability to review and organize. Upon receipt, emails can be saved for the client to review repeatedly. “I recommend clients create a separate folder for our communications for their easy reference,” he said.

Great for nonurgent communication. Email generally allows for a time lapse between when the client sends the message and when the veterinarian responds. “I strive to have all non-urgent communication come through email so that I don’t receive an alarming number of text messages when I am trying to go about my day seeing patients,” Mahaney explained.

Helps maintain medical records. Client communications via email can be saved to a patient’s medical record with relative ease.

Disadvantages

May be missed. Depending on your ability to manage your inbox, an email may not be seen by the intended veterinarian or support staff, causing a client’s question or request to go unanswered. There is also the risk that pertinent information could end up in a spam/junk folder.

Not considered urgent. An emails may not be received and thoroughly assessed for minutes, hours, or even days after it is sent, resulting in a potential delay in patient care. “For urgent communication, I always advise my clients to text or call me,” he said.

Social media

Advantages

Generates publicity. Use social media to share information about what is happening at your hospital in terms of services, notable events, news, etc.

Raises awareness. Social media can bring attention to causes that benefit animals and veterinary medicine.

Disadvantages

Is viewed less frequently. Depending on individual preferences, messages on social media platforms may not be viewed as often as emails or texts, which can cause questions and concerns to be overlooked.

Generational preference. Younger generations of veterinarians tend to be more social media savvy than their seasoned counterparts.

Poor record maintenance. Some platforms exist only on mobile devices, which can make it challenging to collect and assimilate information into digital or written medical records.

The bottom line

There is no replacement for in-person interactions when forming a veterinarian-client-patient-relationship. But once trust and a standard of care are established, it is more than OK to incorporate other means of communication with clients. When not examining patients, Mahaney relies heavily on email correspondence. “In my practice, I love communicating via email as doing so permits me to collect my thoughts, research topics, and respond in well-composed paragraphs with helpful information,” he explained.

In his hierarchy of multimedia communications, Mahaney said social media comes dead last. “I enjoy using social media in my veterinary practice, but I do not use it as a means of communicating with clients about a patient’s health concerns.” Instead, he views social media as an integration of his professional and personal life, where current and potential clients can get a glimpse into his creative endeavors while also learning more about the veterinary services he offers.

Mahaney’s final piece if advise? “Ultimately, no one knows your clientele better than you,” he said. “Experiment with different means of communication to find what works best for everyone involved.”

Amanda Carrozza is a freelance writer and editor in New Jersey.