April 20th 2022

Vets Are Human Too

Spoiler alert. Vets are human too.

It is the human condition to be fallible sometimes. This includes pet owners, their veterinary surgeons and mediators. Fallibility takes many forms, but a key cause is communication and, more importantly, miscommunication.

Unclear communication, whether spoken or written, and the perception of inappropriate communication, can sow the seeds of discontent in the client/vet relationship. With the not always helpful interactions on social media, how we say something is increasingly under scrutiny and open to genuine or wilful misinterpretation.

Not saying something can sometimes be worse.

Wires getting crossed are a regular cause of dispute and complaint. Many of these are being resolved through the facilitated communication of mediation.  To nip potential issues in the bud is the key to prevent escalation. Asking a few open questions (Why? What? How?) and genuinely listening to the answer can be a game changer in effective client/vet interactions. Indeed, understanding where the other person is coming from can make a huge difference in determining the outcome to a case.

As an example, a recent mediation involved a client who the practice found difficult to deal with. The client’s behaviour and language directed towards staff were perceived as inappropriate. This perception had built to the point that the practice no longer felt able to treat this client’s pets. The client in turn felt victimised and bullied by the practice yet was desperate to be reinstated as a client with them. This seemed contradictory at first glance.

Exploring the situation with both parties allowed them to appreciate the other side’s intention behind their words. This process revealed that the practice felt a duty of care to their staff to protect them from abusive behaviour.  The vet, who had seen the client, had been extremely upset.  She was a senior clinician, so the practice was concerned about how their less experienced staff would cope under similar circumstances. The client, however, was unaware that he had upset the vet as she maintained a professional demeanour throughout.

Through the mediation conversation, and unknown to the practice, the client revealed he was suffering from a condition that impacted his emotional intelligence and coordination. This had resulted in his driving licence being revoked. He therefore needed to use this practice for his animals because it was within walking distance of his home.

When clearer understanding of the other side’s position was made available, the facilitative function of mediation was able to progress the matter to a mutually agreeable solution. This included an apology on both sides, and reinstatement of the client under a strict standards of behaviour agreement signed by both parties. Now aware of the client’s health issues, the practice felt a duty of care to him, having first secured the agreement of the staff member he had upset.

How we interpret information provided can lead to unintended consequences. For instance, if the vet comments that a horse is crossing his jaw when ridden, the rider may receive this as a problem to be solved by tightening the noseband, for example. This is the last thing the vet wants, but the client does not know that.

Lack of, or assumed, mutual understanding of vocabulary can also create problems. What, for example, does an emergency mean to the vet and to the client?  The practice may consider an emergency as a life- threatening presentation that requires immediate intervention. The client, whose world may revolve around their animal, may consider anything impacting their pet’s health to be urgent and, in their mind, an emergency.  And where does a condition described as ‘serious’ sit within this triage process?

Not listening is the other half of the communication circle. It may be the most important part. Hearing and listening are two different processes. Listening takes proactive concentration and focus. If clients listen to their vets and vice versa, this is a powerful tool in the kit that can prevent disagreements or reduce their intensity and duration.  Taking time to listen may feel like a dream or luxury for vets with large caseloads, but time taken to develop the vet/client relationship is an investment in the future. The time taken to address complaints, mediation, VDS, RCVS or the courts will cost the practice and the individual vet significantly more in time/money and emotional energy.

The take home message? Listen, listen, listen and don’t make things worse.

Have you been affected by any of the issues in this blog? Our independent mediation service can be contacted on 0345 040 5834 or via enquiries@vetmediation.co.uk

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