Updated on December 6, 2009
In 2001, the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association stated, “Veterinarians’ responsibilities have expanded to include the mental health and well-being of their clients as well as their clients’ pets.” For me, this came as no great surprise. Having graduated from veterinary school in 1982, I’d already learned that if I wasn’t taking good care of my clients’ emotional needs, it was far more difficult to take good care of my patients’ health needs. Admittedly, it took me a few years to catch on to this notion. During my formative years, I recall thinking that good client communication would be a “slam dunk”. After all, I fancied myself to be a good teacher and a nice person. It didn’t take long for me to realize that the “medicine part” was becoming a whole lot easier than the “client part.”
Thus began my avid interest in the art and science of client communication. I read whatever I could get my hands on (not much in the veterinary literature at that time) and attended communication workshops. I began studying my clients, trying new tactics and techniques, and asking questions of them not necessarily directly related to their dog or cat (Kleenex consumption increased exponentially). I founded and continue to facilitate a community Client Support Group (talk about a front row seat in terms of understanding what is going on in our clients’ minds) and have enjoyed teaching client communication skills to local and national audiences.
The unfortunate fact of the matter is that few veterinary colleges provide any formal client communication training to their students- doesn’t make much sense does it? One of the schools that doesn’t overlook this important subject is Colorado State University. Here veterinary students receive fabulous communication training via the Argus Institute (www.argusinstitute.colostate.edu). This organization’s stated mission is “to strengthen veterinarian-client-patient communication and support relationships between people and their companion animals.” In addition to providing formal client communication training to CSU veterinary students, the Argus Institute also makes communication training available to veterinarians. These workshops are called FRANK (based on the notion of “frank” communication), and the emphasis is on relationship-centered care, an approach that emphasizes collaboration and shared decision-making between veterinarian and client. Pfizer Animal Health was involved in the creation of FRANK in 2007 and continues to generously fund this program.
I just completed my first FRANK training workshop- what a fabulous experience. I left the program feeling invigorated, renewed, and eager to apply what I had learned. The majority of the workshop time was spent in small groups within simulated exam rooms. Professional actors played “the client,” each getting in character with their assigned emotional agendas (they were awesome and totally believable). Everyone took turns as “the veterinarian” during these mock office visits. The interactions were videotaped after which respectful, constructive critique was offered within the small group setting. We worked on several communication skills including delivery of empathetic statements, maintaining focus on the “common ground” (the well being of the patient), reflective listening, facilitating silent pauses (time for clients to gather their thoughts), disclosure (sharing stories of our own that might parallel what the client is emotionally experiencing), and asking open-ended questions (allows the client greater opportunity to share their stories).
A veterinarian can be a sensational surgeon or a dandy diagnostician, but such skills may wither on the vine if he or she is not a successful communicator. More than ever before, people are becoming savvy consumers of veterinary medicine and better effective medical advocates for their pets. My sense is that these wonderful trends will drive the awareness that client communication training for veterinarians is profoundly important. Frankly speaking, I think it’s about time!
Wishing you and your four-legged family members a joyful and healthy holidays season.
Dr. Nancy Kay
Specialist, American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine
Please visit http://www.speakingforspot.com to read excerpts from Speaking for Spot. There you will also find “Advocacy Aids”- helpful health forms you can download and use for your own dog, and a collection of published articles on advocating for your pet’s health. Speaking for Spot is available at Amazon.com, local bookstores, or your favorite online book seller.
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Listen to Dr. Kay’s interview – A Veterinarian Advises “How to Speak for Spot” on NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross