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Put Dr. Google to work for your veterinary practice


A proactive approach maximizes appointment time when veterinary clients come in toting Internet research.

Are you spending precious office visit time dissuading clients from the whackadoodle notions they glean from cyberspace? Do your clients cling to Dr. Google's recommendations more than they believe what you have to say? There's no question that Internet research is here to stay. The good news is that there are a number of ways to ensure a winning result for everyone involved without sacrificing quality of care or causing you to expend needless time and energy.

Teach your clients to become responsible surfers

Here are some tips for teaching your clients how to avoid online "junk food" and become responsible Internet surfers:

1 Create a list of recommended websites that you have already vetted. If you see loads of patients with allergic skin disease, make sure your list covers this topic. If your specialty is surgery, be ready to provide a high-quality website or two that address cruciate ligament disease. Help your clients avoid having to reinvent the wheel.

2 Veterinary college websites invariably provide reliable information. Advise your clients to search for them by entering "veterinary college" or "veterinary school" after the name of the disease or symptom they're researching. Try this yourself. Go online and compare the results you get when you Google "feline asthma" compared with the results when you search for "feline asthma veterinary college." Quite a difference in the quality of information provided, don't you think?

3 If your patient has a breed-specific disease, encourage your client to visit the site hosted by that specific breed's national organization. For example, the national Bernese mountain dog website (www.bernergarde.org) provides a wealth of up-to-date information about malignant histiocytosis.

4 Teach your clients how to avoid business-sponsored websites, particularly those offering products for sale.

5 Teach your clients to recognize anecdotal information for what it is. As captivating as these National Enquirer-type stories may seem (how Max's heartworm disease was cured by aromatherapy), it's not okay for such vignettes to gobble up precious office visit time or influence medical decision-making.

6 Encourage your clients to check out disease-specific online forums (vetted by you). Not only do they provide a wealth of educational information, members can be a wonderful source of emotional support (which may translate into reduced need for emotional support from you). The best forums are those that limit themselves to a specific disease (kidney failure, diabetes, lymphoma and so on), have many members, utilize multiple moderators (provide round-the-clock coverage and more than one opinion) and have been in existence for several years. Two examples of forums I readily refer clients to are AddisonDogs (addisondogs.com/support/helpers/guidelines) and Tripawds (tripawds.com/forums).

Manage Internet research discussions

Now that you've taught your clients how to be responsible surfers, what can you do to manage conversations about their Internet research? I encourage you to begin by considering how your client may be feeling about approaching you with what she has learned online. She may be feeling:

  • sheepish about obtaining a second opinion from Dr. Google

  • worried that you will think she doesn't trust you

  • anxious that you will judge her negatively

  • apprehensive that there will be conflicting opinions

  • concerned that there won't be time to discuss her research.

As with any conversation, after putting yourself in your client's shoes, it's much easier to respond with genuine empathy rather than animosity or frustration.

I recommend that you be the first one to broach the topic of your client's Internet research—with enthusiasm, I might add! Just as soon as you see the stack of computer paper in your client's hands, let her know that you're pleased she is interested in learning more about her pet's health issues. This will help her know that you are interested in, rather than put off by, her research.

Reassure your client that you will reserve time to discuss what she has learned online. Chances are, once you've provided your thorough explanation, the questions generated by the Internet research will have already been answered.

All of these pointers will help transform your client's Internet research into a win-win situation. In addition to your clients' feeling more supported and better informed, there is always the possibility that you might learn a thing or two. Besides, a busy workday can always benefit from some comic relief—who knew that hip dysplasia is caused by global warming?

Dr. Kay has been published in several professional journals and textbooks. She lectures to regional and national audiences, and one of her favorite lecture topics is communication between veterinarians and their clients. Since the release of her book Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life, Dr. Kay has written numerous magazine articles on the topic of medical advocacy and veterinarian-client communication.

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