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The new year: Out with the old?

dvm360dvm360 January 2024
Volume 55
Issue 1
Pages: 42

A practice employed so much advanced client interactive technology that it was driving pet owners away

Editor’s note: All names and businesses in this dilemma case are fictitious, but the scenario is based on real occurrences.

Rafa Fernandez / stock.adobe.com

Rafa Fernandez / stock.adobe.com

There has been no larger beneficiary from progress made in medical breakthroughs than veterinary medicine. CT scans, MRIs, and sophisticated dental procedures are now commonplace in the profession.

The Lawson Animal Hospital was preparing for its year-end staff meeting, the time at which practice adjustments and medical goals are discussed. The staff traditionally suggested the latest laboratory and diagnostic equipment along with new technology to communicate with the clientele more efficiently. This year, however, the staff meeting and recommendations for the new year were a bit different.

During the staff meeting, several doctors and technicians reported areas of client dissatisfaction. None of the commentary involved cutting-edge medical technology nor the inevitable fee increases that the economy had thrust upon them. Surprisingly, clients were complaining about communication shortcomings and a feeling of impersonality when contacting the hospital.

The hospital manager was disappointed by these comments. Over the past year, she had been working to enhance client communication efficiency. As the practice grew and became busier, she had implemented new technology to assist in this area.

A newly automated phone system provided a client contact menu and then directed the call to the designated staff member. After-hours information listed all the 24-hour emergency care centers in the vicinity and offered the opportunity to leave a message that would be returned first thing in the morning. The clinic website now allowed clients to access patient records and see when their routine vaccinations were due. Ironically, these enhanced communication tools were the source of certain client dissatisfaction.

With all this available veterinary technology, certain things haven’t changed: Pets and their owners value the rapport they establish with their veterinarian. There is nothing more comforting than being able to actually speak to a veterinarian who can personally impart helpful information. Many clients don’t want to speak to a computer and get automated messaging. This is often impossible to avoid in this day and age; however, a hybrid approach to client communication is often more effective and greatly appreciated.

The consensus opinion was that initial calls to the animal hospital should always be answered by compassionate staff members. The caller’s inquiry then can be either answered or forwarded via an automated system to the appropriate department. Whenever possible, there should be an after-hours on-call professional available. An automated after-hours system can advise a client that an on-call staff member will return their call. This type of response is greatly appreciated by anxious pet owners and is a true practice builder.

The staff agreed with the consensus of their clients. When it came right down to it, clients don’t mind speaking with automated systems in routine elective situations. However, when urgency and anxiety exist, automated systems are resented and actual staff contact is preferred. The Lawson Animal Hospital emphasized client satisfaction and compassionate pet care in its mission statement. In the veterinary profession, automated efficiency has its place but can prove to be frustrating where compassion and guidance is immediately required.

Rosenberg's response

Human medical practice has set the tone for communication options with veterinary medical personnel. There are portals on which emails and text messages can be sent. There are voicemail options for leaving audio messages. There are outpatient urgent care centers where a practitioner can be seen in person. The patient has no history or relationship with urgent care practitioners, but they are at least up close and personal.

Finally, there are concierge doctors in human medicine. Affluent patients pay a premium simply for accessibility and contact. Clinical veterinary medical practice is moving in this direction as well. The hybrid model adopted by the Lawson Animal Hospital—part direct staff contact and part automated interfacing—is a good compromise. Clinical veterinary medicine at its root is a for-profit small business. Hopefully this stimulus will prevent client interactive automation from taking over completely.

Marc Rosenberg, VMD, is director of Voorhees Veterinary Center in Voorhees, New Jersey. Although many of the scenarios Rosenberg describes in his column are based on real-life events, the veterinary practices, doctors, and employees described are fictional.

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