During our first year of veterinary school at Michigan State University, us students went to the Learning Assessment Center (LAC) to practice our client communication skills with actors. We would take a history, discuss treatment plans, and just get a feel for how to interact with the people who’d be bringing animals to our hospital. This was a great experience, but it didn’t prepare us for the intricacies of dealing with actual clients. Over the past couple months I’ve gotten a decent amount of experience in this regard, and I thought I’d share a few things with all of you. Today I’ll show you the things clients do that I love, what they do that I’m not such a fan of, and some tips for talking to clients for other vet students out there.
3 THINGS I LOVE THAT CLIENTS DO
- Doing your own research. I really love it when clients show initiative and try to look up things their animal has. Not only does this prove that they care about their pet, but it makes it a lot easier to discuss their animal’s disease. Veterinary medicine can get really complicated, so it’s super helpful if the owner comes in with some sort of knowledge base.
However, it’s very important that the client is open to hearing that their research may not be correct. I’ll get into this more below, but if you’re going to read up on stuff before visiting your vet, try to use reputable sources. This means scientific papers, university websites, and other things written by actual doctors. Websites written by lay people can be really helpful in condensing information, but make sure that they cite their sources and those sources are reliable. It really sucks when a client comes in and argues that sites like www.realmilk.com are completely reputable.
- Being upfront about limitations. It saves vets (and us clinical vet students!) tons of time and grief when an owner just tells us what they’re not able to do right off the bat. If we suggest you bathe your dog three times a week with a chlorhexidine shampoo and you agree to it, we assume you’re going to do it. Don’t come back a month later and tell us you bathed the dog once. If you know you don’t have the time, or even the desire, to do certain things for your animal, just tell us. It saves us time from explaining how to perform treatments that you’re not going to actually do and it can help us come up with an alternative that works for you.
I think a lot of people are hesitant to be upfront about stuff like this with their vets because they think we’ll judge them. I mean, if you tell me that you spent all this money on an appointment but you’re not willing to give your dog a pill once a month, yeah, that’s ridiculous. But I try to be understanding of my clients’ limitations. I know I wouldn’t want to bathe my dog three times a week or give it pills every 6 hours for a month. Remember, you are paying us for our services. As long as you’re respectful and not abusing your animal, it’s our job to try to work with you.
- Ask questions. I love it when clients ask me things. If I know the answer, it makes me feel like a genius. Even if I don’t, it still shows that you’re making an effort to understand what’s going on. That in turn means you want to take the best possible care of your animal. So please don’t hesitate to ask us to explain things to you. Not only do most vets enjoy educating their clients; it saves us a lot of trouble down the road from dealing with mistakes due to poor communication.
FOUR THINGS I DON’T LOVE THAT CLIENTS DO
- Trusting Dr. Google over actual doctors. I already dove into this above and in another blog post, but there’s nothing more annoying than when clients trust random things they read on the internet over actual medical advice. Now to be clear, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with reading something untrue while doing your own research and believing it. I’ve been fooled plenty of times by seemingly real stories on the internet.
A large part of me died when I realized this octopus didn’t actually escape its tank and get drunk after being saved from a sushi chef.
Like I said before, I love it when clients do their own research. I just want them to also be receptive to the research that I’ve done, which comes directly from medical textbooks and certified veterinarians I’m working with. Ask questions, but if a doctor says that there is literally zero evidence for vaccines causing autism when a model / actress proclaims otherwise, maybe trust the person with twelve years of scientific training.
- Being late. I don’t think that any of MSU’s clients realize that us students have to wait in the lobby area fifteen minutes before their appointment is scheduled. That’s fifteen minutes where we could be working on other cases, doing research, or having crazy vet school adventures.
We’re a wild bunch.
So you can imagine that when a client is 20 minutes late, which happens way more often than you would think, we get a bit irritated. We’re really busy, so at least give us a heads up if you’re running behind so we can leave the lobby and get some other work done.
- Being disrespectful. We’re really dipping into obvious territory here, but apparently this needs to be said. One of my classmates had a client this week who refused to talk to him because he was a student. We attend a teaching hospital and it’s explained to all clients that they will have to work with students in addition to doctors. Nevertheless, this client treated my classmate like crap. Honestly, what did she think would happen after that? Did she really believe the doctor would drop everything, abandon protocol, and proceed with the appointment normally after causing a scene and insulting her student? If you’re going to see a vet, just don’t be a jerk. It’s an easy rule to remember; it applies to a lot of other parts of life.
- Not giving us a chance to ask questions. A huge part of a veterinarians’ job is getting a good history from the client. The animals themselves can’t tell us what’s wrong, so we rely on their owners to fill in the blanks that our physical exams leave open. That means we have a lot of questions to ask in the short appointment windows we have.
Now the points in this blog aren’t in order, but I still put this last because unlike the others it’s not intentional or a sign of ignorance. It’s absolutely important that clients talk to us and give us details. It’s just that if I’ve started to ask a question during a quick pause and you keep talking, five times in a row, that gets pretty annoying. A lot of times clients talk about things that aren’t relevant to the case, and this eats up a ton of appointment time. Again, I do want to hear about your animal and I want to form a bond with you, but I simply can’t spend all day in the exam room with you. At some point I need to steer the conversation back on track. Please let me (politely) do that.
4 TIPS FOR FUTURE CLINICAL VET STUDENTS
Let’s switch gears and quickly discuss the four most helpful things I’ve learned from my time in the exam room with clients. I hope these help some other vet students on their early days in clinics.
- Recap things every once in a while. When you’re explaining an animals prognosis and treatment plan to a client, you have to keep in mind a few things. Not only do most clients not have the science education you do, but they’re also worried about their animal and their finances. On top of that, you’re also condensing everything you’ve done during this case into a five or ten minute explanation. No wonder that many clients leave their vet’s office feeling overwhelmed and confused. Take things slow and try to recap what you’ve said every couple minutes, letting the owner know it’s okay to ask questions. When you’re in your teaching hospital, also make sure to write really good discharges that have everything you’ve said to the client written down. When you’re in the room with a client, let them know that they don’t need to remember this all verbatim; they have a discharge that they can look back on. So in summation, just try to keep them from feeling overwhelmed.
- Take a minute to foster a relationship with clients. When you first meet a new client, don’t jump right into a history and physical exam. You especially might get the urge to do this during your first couple appointments when you feel like you have no idea what you’re doing. But calm down and take a short amount of time to connect with the owner. Shake their hand, ask how their drive over was, and how their day is going. While they answer, kneel down and pet their animal. Address the little guy or gal by their name and say something sincerely nice about their pet, such as how well groomed or friendly they are. A client who feels a connection with you will give you more information, be more receptive to your advice, and will be less likely to get mad if you make a mistake.
- Remember this is an animal, not a case. I had to keep myself from writing “When you first start a new case,” in my last point’s first sentence. Always try to stay away from the mindset of your patient being simply a case or manila folder. When you let yourself think like that, you start sliding down a slippery slope. You might refer to a client’s animal as “it” instead of he or she, which can be like throwing an emotional grenade into the room. Or, since you’re not thinking of it as an actual living thing, you may want to take some shortcuts during treatment or diagnostics so you can finish a little earlier.
That last one is really important to never, ever do. A common example is Cushing’s Disease (hyperadrenocorticism). Approximately 85% of these dogs have polyuria and polydypsia (excess thirst and urination). Because that number is so high, some vets will automatically rule out Cushing’s Disease in a dog that doesn’t have these signs. After all, why bother wasting time drawing blood and interpreting chemistry results when there’s only a 15% chance this dog actually has Cushing’s?
Because there’s still a 15% chance the dog has Cushing’s! If you don’t run that test, don’t find out what disease that animal truly has, and don’t give it the treatment it needs, it’s not just a case file that suffers. It’s not a puzzle that you didn’t get the right answer to. It’s a living, breathing thing that will experience pain. Always remember that.
- Don’t get attached. This seems to fly right in the face of my last point, and it seems contradictory to the whole reason you became a vet, but you’ve got to do this. Or at least keep yourself from being completely attached to your patients. If you don’t do this, you will burn yourself out before you even graduate. The simple fact of being a veterinarian is that you will see many, many things die. Some will be peaceful, some will be painful, some will be completely unfair. Each one will hurt, but you have to keep it from fully reaching you. You need some kind of barrier to deflect that pain or you just can’t survive. No one can handle losing a friend each day for the rest of your life. You can like your patients, want them to get better, and enjoy your time with them, just as long as you stop yourself from fully considering them yours.
As always, thanks for checking out Writing Through Vet School. If you like what you read, I hope you’ll consider following me; it really helps me out a lot. Let me know below if you have any comments or questions, I always love hearing from you guys. Ryan out.