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Win one for the team with effective communication
Examining one of the most important and least taught topics in veterinary training
Content submitted by Empowering Veterinary Teams, a dvm360® Strategic Alliance Partner
Over the past 2 decades, the importance of veterinary communication skills has attracted increased attention.1-6 Because of this, communication skills training has been introduced at most veterinary and veterinary technician schools. Due to the amount of clinical subject matter that must be taught, however, there simply isn’t enough time available to adequately teach students about effective communication.
A significant gap between need and ability
In a survey done among 1,774 veterinarians in the United States and United Kingdom on veterinary communication skills and training, respondents were asked how well communication training they received during veterinary school prepared them for speaking with clients.7 Nearly 30% of respondents said their veterinary school training prepared them “poorly” or “very poorly” for communicating with clients and only 6% felt their communication training prepared them “very well.”7
What “good” looks like in veterinary communication
Effective communication is worth striving for. Client understanding, trust and satisfaction are enhanced by effective communication.3,8,9 Agreement and adherence to preventive or treatment recommendations are also positively impacted.9-11 But what is effective communication? In the practitioner-patient-client dynamic, it is characterized by a sharing of both dialogue and decision-making about the management of a patient’s health,12 also known as “relationship-centered communication.”11,13 Among the characteristics of relationship-centered communication are the use of open-ended questions, active listening, maintaining eye contact, asking the client’s opinion and inquiring about his or her concerns, and expressing empathy. It’s important to note that the majority of veterinary professionals identify as empathic people, which if this portion of communication training is not addressed, can lead to compassion fatigue and burnout.14
Communication among veterinary team members is equally important. One reason is consistency across the veterinary team in what is said to the client. Communication is also a key factor in maintaining a positive working environment in the practice, through empowerment of colleagues to express needs or concerns, deal with disagreements, or ask for help when it’s needed. A recent blog post on the website Hound15 cited several advantages in utilizing effective communication for the veterinary practice team. In addition to improving patient care, team communication was credited for:
- building better rapport in the team,
- helping de-escalate stressful situations,
- helping to support self-improvement in a positive way, and
- helping to resolve issues within the practice.
A good communication system, paired with training and encouragement of team members to discuss issues openly, is recommended for mitigating and reducing the effects of compassion fatigue and burn-out in a practice.16
Potential ways to fill the communication skills gap
In the same survey of UK and US veterinarians mentioned above,7 respondents were asked what types of communication training they would most appreciate in continuing education. Overwhelmingly, the most frequent answer was a mix of lectures, online training modules, and roleplay exercises. The lectures help reinforce communication theory, the online modules may be accessed wherever and whenever it's most convenient, and the roleplays recreate most aspects of in-clinic dialogue, but in a safe learning setting. There are many opportunities available to take advantage of all these types of training, including from consultancies, online education providers and of course veterinary conferences.
As part of an effort to learn more about the optimal mix of communication training content and delivery, the 2 co-authors have developed this brief survey for all members of the veterinary team to participate in. Taking 2-3 minutes to complete this will help provide much-needed information for us and other researchers and teachers in veterinary communication skills as we look to continuously improve training offerings. No more silent treatment, it’s more than time for us to talk about this, together.
- Kanji N, Coe JB, Adams CL, et al. Effect of veterinarian-client-patient interactions on client adherence to dentistry and surgery recommendations in companion-animal practice. J Am vet Med Assn 2012;240:427-436.
- Shaw JR. Four core communication skills of highly effective practitioners. Veterinary Clinics of North America: Small Animal Practice 2006;36:385-396.
- Shaw JR, Adams CL, Bonnett BN, et al. Veterinarian satisfaction with companion animal visits. J Am Vet Med Assoc 2012;240:832-841.
- Shaw JR, Adams CL, Bonnet B. What can veterinarians learn from studies of physician-patient communication about veterinarian-client-patient communication? J Am Vet Med Assoc 2004;224:676-684.
- Shaw JR, Barley GE, Broadfoot K, et al. Outcomes assessment of on-site communication skills education in a companion animal practice. J Am Vet Med Assoc 2016;249:419-431.
- Kanji N, Coe JB, Adams CL, et al. Effect of veterinarian-client-patient interactions on client adherence to dentistry and surgery recommendations in companion-animal practice. J Am Vet Med Assoc 2012;240:427-436.
- McDermott M, Tischler V, Robbé I, et al. Veterinarian–client communication skills: Current state, relevance, and opportunities for improvement. J Vet Med Educ 2015;42:305-314.
- Mellanby RJ, Rhind SM, Bell C, et al. Perceptions of clients and veterinarians on what attributes constitute 'a good vet'. Vet Rec 2011;168:616.
- Grand JA, Lloyd JW, Ilgen DR, et al. A measure of and predictors for veterinarian trust developed with veterinary students in a simulated companion animal practice. J Am Vet Med Assoc 2013;242:322-333.
- Kurtz S. Teaching and Learning Communication in Veterinary Medicine. J Vet Med Educ 2006;33:11-19.
- Abood SK. Increasing adherence in practice: making your clients partners in care. Vet Clin North Am Small Anim Pract 2007;37:151-164.
- Cornell KK, Kopcha M. Client-Veterinarian communication: Skills for client centered dialogue and shared decision making. Veterinary Clinics of North America: Small Animal Practice 2007;37:37-47.
- Beach M, Inui T. Relationship-centered care. J Gen Int Med 2006;21:S3-S8.
- Woodward L. Compassion fatigue in the veterinary profession. Improve Veterinary Practice, 2021.
- Winterhalter M. The Importance of Better Staff Communication in Veterinary Practices. Hound. 2022. Accessed January 6, 2022. https://www.hound.vet/blog/better-veterinary-staff-communication#:~:text=Why%20Better%20Communication%20in%20Veterinary%20Practices%20is%20Important%3A,5.%20Better%20communication%20improves%20issues%20within%20the%20practice.
- Foote A. Moral distress, compassion fatigue and burn-out in veterinary practice. The Veterinary Nurse 2020;11:292-295.