Study: Successful veterinarians develop coping skills after adverse events

February 14, 2018

Turning a sad outcome into a learning experience results in resilience for the future, authors report.

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All veterinarians experience complications, sad outcomes and patient deaths, but some veterinarians have developed coping skills and strategies that help them manage these events' emotional impact and learn and grow from them, according to a study that appears in the February 2018 issue of the journal Anthrozoös, says Sara White, DVM, MSc (health ergonomics), the author of the study, in a media release.

The study polled 32 shelter and spay-neuter veterinarians about their experiences and how they coped with life-threatening complications or death related to the spay or neuter procedure, the release states. Qualitative analysis was used to identify themes and patterns in the responses of veterinarians who were successful in coping with adverse events. 

After an adverse outcome veterinarians described feeling guilt, sadness, anxiety and self-doubt, as well as deep empathy for their clients. Some veterinarians were able to turn the incidents into learning experiences and changes for growth, while some weren't ever able to recover from the trauma of these events. The veterinarians who coped most effectively were those who talked openly with colleagues about the events and were able to learn and improve protocols, the study found. The successful veterinarians learned to put the loss into perspective and support themselves through the event's aftermath.

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“Successfully coping with adverse events is important not just for the mental health and peace of mind of individual vets, but for their future patients as well,” says Dr. White in the release. “The more comfortable vets can be thinking about dealing with things that don't go as planned, the better they will be at evaluating, refining and updating the way they care for patients.”

The study gives veterinarians “a language to think and talk about their responses to complications and patient deaths,” as well as steps they can take to recover from these events, says Jen Brandt, LISW-S, PhD, AVMA director of well-being and diversity initiatives, in the release. "Helping veterinarians understand that they are not alone in their feelings and reactions to unanticipated events may help decrease the negative impact of these reactions, and allow veterinarians to respond and cope more effectively,” she says.