Veterinarians Schooled in Communication

Identifying the difference between client communication and manipulation, veterinary professionals enrolled in AAHA’s High Performance Teams  workshop learn how to talk with and listen to clients in ways that improve compliance and enhance professional fulfillment, said Jane Shaw, DVM, PhD, one of two facilitators for the course. “We estimate that veterinarians have 100,000 client interviews in a lifetime so why not make them satisfying?”

Offered for the second time in November, the workshop provides practice teams with a unique opportunity to ask themselves, “How do I take what I’m doing now to the next level,” Shaw said.

Jane Piske, practice coordinator for Colony Animal Hospital in Virginia, found the High Performance Teams workshop in 2004 so useful that she enrolled in the second annual International Conference on Communication in Veterinary Medicine  (ICCVM) held in Canada. “Not a day goes by when I don’t use the communication skills that I learned at AAHA,” Piske said. “It could be so valuable to general practitioners if they knew how to apply it.”

Piske, who runs a two-doctor practice, has implemented many tools she gathered at the workshop when hiring doctors, and said that she sidestepped a potential staff problem by utilizing the open-ended questions and non-confrontational approach to problem-solving skills that she learned at AAHA. “I refer to my notes frequently,” she said. “They’re incredibly practical communication skills that I use with my doctors, staff members, and even my teenage sons.”

During the three-day workshop, professionals learn how to practice “relationship-centered care,” which entails building equal partnerships with clients, Shaw said. “Clients are experts in the daily health and well-being of their pets, which means that they have an equal contribution to make in the partnership,” she explained. Asking open-ended questions enhances client perspectives of doctor interactions. “You want to make sure that the client feels heard and understood,” Shaw said. Professionals who create these types of relationships, she said, invest in their clients by asking sincere questions and listening carefully to responses. “Clients recognize a lack of sincerity and sense that recommendations are not being made for the right reasons,” Shaw added. “If a doctor is concerned about an animal’s welfare, recommendations will sound credible and authentic.”

Historically, some veterinarians took the approach of, “We deal with animals, not humans,” said Elizabeth Strand, PhD, LCSW, director of the Veterinary Social Work Services program at the University of Tennessee . Strand talked about enhancing communication in veterinary environments at the ICCVM, and estimates that about 35 percent of clinicians demonstrate such skills in daily practice. Strand created the program, which prepares social workers for careers in veterinary medicine, in response to the enhanced human/animal bond and the fact that veterinary schools have just begun to realize that communication and interpersonal skills are core competencies.”

Ideally the workshop is attended by several clinic team members to ensure that the end result “is a critical mass of team members who can go back and ensure that change can be made,” Shaw said.