How to talk to clients about science (including bad science)

Say a client comes to you and says, “I read on Facebook that ivermectin can cure COVID. Should I try it?” How do you even begin to respond? 

Deborah Thomson, DVM, has a suggestion: Show them a picture of botfly larvae, something ivermectin was created to eradicate. “Have you ever seen a photo of a botfly?” Thomson asks. “It’s disgusting.” 

Thomson is the author of The Art of Science Communication, a new book about how to talk about science with nonscientists, and she spoke with NEWStat about strategies that people with science backgrounds—such as veterinary professionals—can use to talk to laypeople—such as veterinary clients—about complicated scientific ideas that might otherwise go over their heads. 

A veterinarian whose experience includes clinical practice, teaching, advising a US Senator on public health policy, and designing learning programs to teach children about One Health concepts, Thompson was inspired to write the book in part because of the deluge of scientific misinformation that goes viral on social media, such as the idea that ivermectin cures COVID. 

An FDA-approved prescription medication used to treat certain infections caused by internal and external parasites, veterinary formulations of ivermectin are also available over the counter as a dewormer and boticide. None of the veterinary formulations are intended for use in people, and none are approved as a treatment for COVID. 

But thanks to the social media frenzy, places like feed stores that stock veterinary ivermectin can’t keep it in stock. So many people have contacted the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in recent months to ask if ivermectin can prevent COVID (there’s no evidence that it can), that the agency was compelled to issue a warning 

So why does Thomson flash the photograph?  

“If a person looks at a box of ivermectin meant for horses, they’ll see the words anthelmintic—which means dewormer—or boticide—which means it kills botflies.”  The problem is, Thomson says, most people don’t know what either word means.  

That’s why she keeps a photo of botfly larvae handy: “Equate an image of ivermectin with what it’s meant to treat,” she says. That by itself could be enough to make people think twice about using it to treat themselves. “And it will definitely start a conversation.” 

Visual aids are just one of the strategies Thomson covers in her book, which she wrote in part because it was information she wishes she’d known 15 years ago when she started vet school. Even though she’d had some teaching experience, she didn’t know how to talk to laypeople about science. And in those days the subject didn’t come up much in vet school. “At that point I was just rolling with the punches and learning as I went.” 

At least one teacher wants his students to have that information before they reach veterinary school.  

Nuno Carreiro, DVM, MS, a senior lecturer in Veterinary and Animal Sciences at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst—which has undergraduate programs in Animal Science/Pre-Veterinary and Veterinary Technology—plans to make The Art of Science Communication required reading for one of his senior undergraduate courses that focuses on written and oral communication within the fields of veterinary and animal science. 

He told NEWStat that students in the program begin to learn an entirely “new language” as soon as they take their first science class, and are fluent by their senior year: “Deborah’s book is a practical guide for . . . science students to effectively [learn to] communicate with people [who] may not have a strong science background.” 

And while there’s more of an emphasis on client communication in vet schools these days, Thompson, who works with many clinicians as a relief veterinarian, says a lot of recent grads are still learning when it comes to client communication. She gives the use of medical terms with laypersons as a classic example. 

“I hear some newer grads speak with owners on the phone,” she says. “They keep saying ‘renal’ instead of ‘kidney, ’and I’m thinking, the owners are not going to understand that word.” Thomson doesn’t normally step in (“It’s not my patient and it’s not my place”) but will offer advice if asked.   

Now, instead of giving advice, she can refer them to her book, which she describes as being “like Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, but for scientists, clinicians, and engineers.”  

The book is divided into three sections. The first is how to talk about science with kids who don’t have any science background. The second is how to talk about medical science with members of the general public (which includes veterinary clients), and the third is how to communicate about science with policymakers. Thompson is well versed in the latter, as she worked for a year on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, as California Senator Dianne Feinstein’s science policy advisor.  

She left that job in October 2020, but was there long enough to see the start of the pandemic and witness firsthand the difficulties government officials had trying to communicate complicated scientific concepts about COVID to the general public. “I saw miscommunication happening all the time and being the token scientist in the office I was [often asked] to sit in on meeting with scientists.”  

After the meetings, people would turn to her and say, “Translate this for me. How is what they’re telling me meaningful?”  

That last question is, in a nutshell, is what Thompson wants veterinary professionals to keep in mind when talking to clients: How is what they’re telling the client meaningful to them when it comes to caring for their pets? 

Thompson says she realized early on that “The only hope [my patients] have in getting great quality care is if I can educate their owners, the clients, to such a degree that they want to do the things I present to them.”  

What she witnessed working in Washington during the early days of COVID ramped up her sense of mission: How can veterinary professionals address scientific misinformation with clients?  

Thomson says the average veterinarian is more likely to field questions rife with social-media-inspired misinformation on topics such as raw food diets—“The bane of my existence,” Thompson half-laughs, half-moans. “I talk about them a lot.”  

So how does she talk about them? 

“If I hear a client say they’re feeding their pet a raw-food diet, I say to them, ‘You know, it’s important for me to make sure that you understand the pros and cons.’ And I say, ‘I don’t want to convince you one way or the other; my job is to educate you and make sure you know what the risks are.’  

And Thomson will go on to explain those risks in terms they’ll understand: “Because we’re not just talking about the risks for your pet; we’re talking about the risk for your family. For example, the bacteria that’s found in raw diets have a higher risk of being resistant to antibiotics. And that means that the next time somebody in the family needs an antibiotic, their condition could be harder to treat.” 

Thomson also gives them a handout. “Tufts University has a really good veterinary nutrition section, and so I just go on their website and print out a form that’s really easy to read for clients.”  

She also has a strategy for talking about the diets she does recommend.   

“I list out the ones that I recommend and I say, ‘I trust these companies because they hire board-certified nutritionists.’ And I explain what board-certified nutritionist means in this country. “It’s four years of undergraduate education, four years of veterinary school, one year of internship, and two additional years of residency.”  And then they can become ‘board certified.’ Most will be close to 30 years old by that time, which means they dedicated their twenties to education about pet nutrition.” She says that’s something most people have no trouble understanding.  

“I don’t just say, ‘Get this diet, or get that brand,’” Thomson adds. “I actually explain the reasoning behind it.”  

She sums up her message thusly: “Certain companies hired those people, and that’s why I trust those companies.”  

“The beautiful thing about veterinary medicine is that we have relationships we build every single time we meet with a client and our patient.” And with that relationship building, Thomson says, there comes trust. 

And because the clients trust Thomson, they’ll trust the experts she trusts.  

Thomson says talking to clients about science boils down to “thinking through possible problems that they could be coming up with and addressing them in language they’ll understand.”   

Her number one piece of advice: Don’t tell clients they’re wrong. “If you say that, then they shut down.”  

“Our job as a medical professional is to make sure the client is educated in the options and has as much information as we can give them, as long as they don’t feel overwhelmed,” Thomson says. “And if you explain it the right way with the right words, they’re not going to feel overwhelmed.”  

But people are very shy, she cautions: if they don’t understand a word, they’re not likely to ask you to explain it. The danger: They might agree to something and then say later on, ’I never agreed to that.’ just because they didn’t understand what you said.   

“I don’t blame them,” Thompson says.  “Who wants to feel foolish?”  

But she emphasizes that it’s not a matter of the client being foolish, it’s a matter of the client not knowing the language, “and it’s our responsibility as clinicians to use the right words.”  

Or flashing the right photo. 

Photo credit: © SelectStock/Vetta via Getty Images Plus