Pint-Sized Clients May Be Missing Link in More Accurate Veterinary Diagnoses, Better Compliance

Despite time constraints, veterinary professionals who ignore kids during regular exams are shooting themselves in the proverbial foot, said Cindy Adams, PhD. Speaking to a packed room at North American Veterinary Conference (NAVC) attendees, Adams said that kids represent untapped gold mines of information and offer an excellent venue for closer relationships with clients.

“Kids are astute observers and describers of what’s going down,” Adams said. To establish a rapport with kids, Adams suggests asking “open-ended questions. Look for stories, not answers.” The information-gathering technique, which she referred to as “funneling,” taps research from the human medicine field. Research shows a direct correlation between improved relationships with clients, adults and kids, and increased adherence or compliance. 

Although Adams acknowledged that some practitioners consider kids a hindrance in the exam room, she suggested that children might hold answers to questions about a pet’s lifestyle since they are often the caretakers.

Jill Speicher, a veterinarian who works in an emergency hospital in Kansas, described Adams’ session as eye opening. During fast-paced emergency appointments, which are frequently emotional, she admitted, “I have a tendency to focus on parents,” and added, with a sweeping hand gesture, that kids are sometimes disregarded.

After listening to Adams, Speicher will reconsider her approach. “Adults are preoccupied with decisions about quality of life issues during emergencies,” whereas kids, she said, may be able to fill in the blanks of what happened to the animal.

“Kids can offer more information than I thought,” added a practice manager who attended the session. “The idea of talking to kids on another level is something I will consider,” she added.

Adams referenced information collection as one justification for investing time in young clients, but added that in the end, referencing accurate diagnoses, justifies the means in many ways. “Evidence is conclusive,” Adams said. “It’s worth the time.”

Take, for example, a situation where the doctor is trying to determine what happened to a sick dog. If a child is present, he/she may be able to tell you what food and medication was given, forgotten, or given three times instead of once.

Conversations with kids also help strengthen client bonds, Adams said. Differentiating between acceptance and agreement, Adams urged audience members to establish relationships with kids by acknowledging that listening to a diagnosis may be difficult.

Fielding concerns about the ability to steer kids or their parents back to medical issues at hand once the conversation floodgates have swung wide, Adams said the skill of communication is one that has to be studied and honed.

Employing active listening techniques and demonstrations of non-verbal empathy, such as eye contact, offering a tissue to a distraught client, nodding your head and smiling when you are listening allows veterinary professionals to relate to clients effectively. Adams compared such techniques to sympathizing with clients, which can lead to burnout. “Empathy allows us to appreciate, not own or hold onto, somebody else’s experience,” Adams said. “It allows us to remain intact.”