Vets: Stop hitting pet owners with the shot put

May 14, 2016
Brendan Howard, Business Channel Director

Brendan Howard oversees veterinary business, practice management and life-balance content for dvm360.com, dvm360 magazine, Firstline and Vetted, and plans the Practice Management track at all three Fetch dvm360 conferences.Brendan has proudly served under the Veterinary Economics and dvm360 banners for more than 10 years. Before that, he worked as a journalist, writer and editor at Entrepreneur magazine and a top filmed entertainment magazine in Southern California. Brendan received a Masters in English Literature from University of California, Riverside, in 1999.

A fun metaphor captures a perennial physician, veterinarian problem with sharing medical information with regular folks.

Andy Roark, DVM, put on an eager voice as he remembered how excited he is right before going into a veterinary exam room to explain to a client a condition or diagnosis he deeply understands, through medical training and personal experience. He's going to tell the client everything he knows, as much as possible, because that knowledge feels good to share. It's good to know something and help someone with it!

But that eagerness to barrel through tough medical information is a “data dump” or, to put it in sports metaphors, a “shot put.”

But clients don't understand the terminology you live and breathe or even if they did, sometimes the information is such bad news-scary diagnoses, soul-crushing prognoses, overwhelming treatment recommendations-that even the smartest clients don't hear everything you're saying.

Dr. Roark's co-speaker, veterinary oncologist Sue Ettinger, DVM, offered perspective for science-minded veterinarians. “We go to veterinary school, and we're taught to present to each other very clinically. I remember in one internship, I met a doctor telling a client with a cat with urinary obstruction, ‘Your cat is a UO times three.' I told him, ‘You can't talk like that to owners,'” she said. “Another doctor later in my career was writing complicated terms for clients to read, and she told me, ‘Our job is to teach the clients what these words mean.' It's not.”

Instead, Dr. Ettinger recommended tossing a Frisbee.

“Give a little information, ask some questions,” Dr. Ettinger said. “Always remember, our clients can be emotional and scared.”

Slow down the process and let information sink in and client questions bubble up. Turn the heavy shot put in a client's head into a gentler game of Frisbee-like back-and-forth dialogue.

Among dozens of other incisive communication tips, Dr. Roark shared a gem he picked up from a mentor of his own: “I'm concerned.”

Starting a conversation that way gives a pet owner time to process and prepare for tough news.