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Veterinary Medicine

Change in communication style during veterinary visits may negatively impact pet health

June 3, 2009

Veterinarians communicate with their clients differently when they're discussing a threat to a pet's health, and this style is not as likely to gain positive results for the pet owner, pet or economic gain of the practice, according to a new communication study by the Argus Institute at Colorado State University.

Create a partnership with client

"We found a marked difference in the communication style of most veterinarians in problem versus wellness appointments, which swing from a relationship centered to a paternalistic style, respectively. You might ask 'so what?'" said Dr. Jane Shaw, director of the Argus Institute. "Because the challenge in problem appointments is that veterinarians may miss an opportunity to create a partnership with the client a in caring for their pet - which can be key to the pet's recovery, and strengthen the relationship with their client."

(Photo:  Dr. Shaw and her dog, Cliff)

In general, in wellness visits veterinarians focus on building a relationship with their client, engaging the client as an active partner in caring for the health of their pet, so the pet owner participates in the visit and has an opportunity to voice his or her opinion. They also communicate with a different tone, evident in more social talk, laughter, reassurance and compliments and twice as much interaction with the pet. It makes sense that in problem appointments, veterinarians conversed predominantly about medical topics. However, the challenge with only focusing on that means the veterinarians may have missed out on gathering concerns from their client that could impact patient management and outcomes. The tone reflected stress as some veterinarians were perceived as hurried and some clients as anxious and emotionally distressed.

During wellness exams, the expectations of the client and the veterinarians are easily set and met in which common topics - often easier for the client to grasp - are discussed such as weight management or behavior issues. When a problem impacts a pet's health, the stakes are higher for both parties. Veterinarians are under more demand and stress to solve the health problem, particularly if the problem is challenging or outside of their comfort level. Clients are under more stress as well because their pet is sick and important and difficult decisions must be made.

Paternalism not as effective for gaining results 

If a paternal communication style is used during problem appointments, there is potential for negative consequences that could impact pets, clients, and veterinarians.

"We know that paternalism is not as an effective of an approach for gaining results. Without engaging the client in a conversation about their pet and obtaining their opinion, they aren't as likely to follow through on home care. They also are not as likely to build a strong relationship - and subsequent loyalty - to their veterinarian," said Shaw. "To achieve successful results veterinarians can empower their clients as partners by supporting their emotions, understanding their expectations and reaching a mutual agreement during problem appointments as well as during wellness appointments. Society is changing, animals are regarded as family members, and clients expect a different level of service from the veterinarians. People want to interact with their veterinarians and be a part of their pet's veterinary care."

A strong relationship with a client improves a veterinarian's ability to gather accurate and complete information and diagnose the problem. Clients are more satisfied with their veterinary interactions. Encouraging the client to participate, negotiate and share in the decisions about their pet's treatment also increases their adherence to at-home care recommendations and improves their pet's health.

Shaw said that it's important for veterinarians to assess their client's needs, and to remember that not all clients want the same approach.

Open-ended questions recommended


The solution? Ask open-ended questions during the appointment. This encourages the client to open up and share his or her observations and to initiate collaboration with the veterinarian in their pet's care. Some examples of open-ended questions are:

- What questions do you have?

- You seem a little hesitant about some of the treatment options. Tell me more about that.

- What options have you considered?

- What will be the most difficult for you?

Shaw also encourages veterinarians to explore their client's life in a broader context during problem appointments to help them gain an understanding of the pet's illness. It's important to look for factors such as the degree of the client's attachment to the pet, their financial resources, whether or not they are the primary caregiver to their pet, and life events that may impact the pet's health such as the birth of a child or death of a family member.


Contact: Dell Rae Moellenberg
E-mail: DellRae.Moellenberg@colostate.edu
Phone: (970) 491-6009