You are being watched


"She got into her vet truck and left without ever washing her boots!"

"She got into her vet truck and left without ever washing her boots!"

Believe it or not, I saw this comment in an e-mail from one of our sales consultants. He was discussing what he saw as a breach of biosecurity by a veterinarian on one of his customer's farms.

Our company policy is that our representatives must wash their boots immediately upon arriving on farms, and again before leaving. While I cannot say that every consultant always follows the policy, I know that most do. Thus, when they see a veterinarian do less, it causes concern.

Observation: A great impression

When I first started in practice, my boss stressed to me the importance of professional image, and he particularly stressed washing our boots. His opinion was influenced by an experience early in his career similar to the one described, except he was the offending practitioner.

He had gone into a barn to do some procedure, but found no one to identify the cow. He decided to make another call to a nearby farm, and then return.

My boss had not entered the stable area and thought he had not exposed his boots to contamination, so he simply returned to his truck and left. Unfortunately, the producer was watching him while preparing to come from the house to the barn and saw him leave without washing his boots. When my boss returned a little later, he received a tongue lashing, and farms throughout the neighborhood soon learned of the incident.

Perception vs. reality

We are watched by all the players in the dairy community. Appearance is important. Perception becomes reality. The doctor in the first paragraph may have thought her boots were uncontaminated, and perhaps they were. But it appeared to a lay observer that she was breaching biosecurity, and it took little time for him to pass that observation on to others.

The implications extend beyond our boots. If our medicine case is spattered with dried manure or our coveralls are visibly contaminated, lay people see the possibility of us introducing infectious agent into their environment. These same people may bring replacement animals in with out testing and think little of it, but they see real risk in our medicine case, hoof knife or nose lead, etc.

At a deeper level, people are forming a perception of whether or not the veterinarian cares about them and their animals. They expect a professional to exhibit high standards regarding hygiene and other aspects of practice. Many producers believe that an air bubble in an intravenous line can be fatal to a cow. Thus, when I give intravenous medication, I honor that concern even though I also explain that there really is no risk to an animal with a four-chambered heart.

Another manifestation of this phenomenon is the appearance of our skin sutures after surgery. We can perform a masterpiece internally, but if the incision line is not aesthetically pleasing, the client perceives carelessness. If something goes awry with the recovery, you can count on getting the blame. Or if we fail to fully warm our bottles before giving an IV, the client again perceives that their animal is not important to us.

Appearances can work in our favor as well as against us. I once received a gift certificate from the owner of a horse who died very unexpectedly during a routine procedure. With the certificate was a card thanking me for my "kind and caring manner". The outcome of my procedure was very negative, but my behavior and attitude still left them with a favorable impression.

The point is that we need to be aware that clients and others are constantly watching us and forming judgments based on factors that may seem unimportant to us. Whether it is washing our boots, changing to clean coveralls between calls, placing skin sutures with care or thoroughly warming our bottles before administering an IV, we send a message that the client interprets through his or her filter. The resulting opinion impacts their perception of us as individuals and our profession in general.

Let's try to make that opinion favorable.

Dr. Gardner is the business development manager for Agway Feed & Nutrition in eastern Pennsylvania. He also consults with dairy practitioners regarding practice management.

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