Whole-Team Communication

During a visit to your clinic, whether it be a preventative care, sick, or emergency visit, each team member has an opportunity to positively impact the client experience. If empowered with knowledge and communication skills, they can impact patient outcomes as well.

How Consistent Team Communication Can Improve the Client Experience

During a visit to your clinic, whether it be a preventive care, sick, or emergency visit, each team member has an opportunity to positively impact the client experience. If empowered with knowledge and communication skills, they can impact patient outcomes as well.

GettyImages-601947098.jpg

Through understanding and elevating the role of each team member in client communication, practices can begin to create a whole-team approach to client communication.

Strong Communication Benefits Pets and People

Studies in both human and veterinary medicine have shown many benefits of strong communication between clinicians and clients. Strong communication, especially when focused on relationship-building, has been associated with higher client satisfaction after a medical visit. Patient outcomes are also improved owing to higher levels of client adherence. When recommendations are followed, the health and quality of life of the patient is maximized and the bond between pet and owner is strengthened.

Improved client compliance can also benefit the practice. In a 2022 study in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association (JAVMA), projected spending was increased for dog owners who viewed video interactions with veterinarians who had completed a new communication training program. This suggests that clear, relationship-based communication from the veterinarian may increase client spending on pet care owing to increased adherence to recommendations.

Furthermore, in a profession in which the mental health of veterinarians and their team members can be poor, improved client compliance and patient outcomes may lessen the degree of moral distress and compassion fatigue encountered by veterinary team members. Finally, malpractice claims and board complaints are reduced for clinicians with excellent bedside manner and communication skills, which can also positively impact mental health.

Strong communication between team members also benefits patients and clinic staff. When it comes to patients, clear communication between team members has been shown to help reduce medical errors. It also improves team effectiveness and job satisfaction and reduces burnout. By prioritizing communication training for all team members, veterinary clinics have an excellent opportunity to enhance the client experience, quality of patient care, and practice culture.

All Veterinary Team Members Play a Role in the Client Experience

Significant emphasis has been placed on the importance of communication skills training for veterinarians. However, many team members interact with clients during their visit. The veterinarian is often not the team member interacting with the client the most. Through understanding and elevating the role of each team member in client communication, practices can begin to create a whole-team approach to client communication.

Client Service Representatives

GettyImages-489911442.jpg

During the appointment, the nursing team often has the most direct contact with clients and patients.

In many clinics, a client service representative (CSR) is the first team member with whom a client interacts. Initial communication often takes place over the phone, followed by an in-person interaction at check-in. The CSR influences the tone of the visit, sets expectations as to wait times, and prepares the owner for how the appointment will proceed.

CSRs can expand their role in client interactions by providing initial client education about preventive care recommendations during scheduling and check-in. For instance, when the client is scheduling their appointment, the CSR can review what vaccines the pet is due for, remind the client to bring a fecal sample, introduce the idea of wellness blood work, especially for senior pets, and screen for additional client concerns. This plants the seed in the client’s mind that these are important items that should be considered for their pet.

Veterinary Nurses, Technicians, and Assistants

During the appointment, the nursing team often has the most direct contact with clients and patients. Their role in client communication can vary from clinic to clinic and may include taking a history, educating clients on recommendations, discussing estimates and treatment plans, and reviewing discharge instructions. Fully utilizing the skills and training of these team members during appointments can help to improve their sense of wellbeing and job satisfaction.

The veterinary nursing and assistant team should be provided with communication skills training to help build rapport with clients and elicit a full list of concerns for the veterinarian. An assistant or technician who connects with their clients is a huge asset and can help to bond clients to the practice. They can set the veterinarian up for success by providing detailed information specific to the pet and client.

Members of the nursing team can also improve efficiency by getting preventive care diagnostics started while waiting for the veterinarian to come for the exam. This is, of course, only possible if the clinic has specific guidelines for preventive care, clear communication between team members, and clients who are compliant with recommendations.

Veterinarian

While essential to the visit, the veterinarian is often the last person the client meets. The tone of the visit has already been set by the other team members. The veterinarian’s role in communicating with the client includes asking additional history questions, explaining examination findings, and making diagnostic and treatment recommendations. They play a key role in relationship-building with clients and providing specific client education.

Implementing a Whole-Team Communication Strategy

To successfully implement a whole-team approach to client communication, clinic leadership must create an environment that encourages all staff members to learn and utilize communication skills and engage in client education. Here are three essential components to create a successful whole-team communication strategy.

Communication Skills Training for Team Members

While client communication is a core competency in veterinary education, not all staff members receive communication training prior to joining the team. Even veterinarians who do receive communication training as students may have limited client interactions. Thus, all new hires should be provided with resources about expectations for client communication and opportunities to practice and improve their skills. Clinic leadership can create learning opportunities during regular team meetings, encourage their staff to attend continuing education sessions focused on communication, and provide feedback related specifically to communication skills.

Three key communication skills that should be taught to all team members include:

  • Nonverbal communication: This accounts for a majority of communication between individuals and includes posture, facial expressions, and tone of voice. Encouraging staff to be aware of their own nonverbal cues as well as to pay attention to the nonverbal communication of clients to improve their ability to build relationships.
  • Open-ended questions: These types of questions give clients the opportunity to provide as much detail as they feel is necessary beyond a simple yes or no answer. In a 2011 JAVMA study of veterinarian communication, clinicians who took time to solicit client concerns at the beginning of the appointment were less likely to encounter a new question at the end of the appointment.
  • Listening without interruption: To maximize the benefit of open-ended questions, veterinarians and team members need to stop and listen to the client without interrupting their answers. In the same 2011 JAVMA study, client responses to open-ended questions about concerns were interrupted 55% of the time. The median length of time until the client was interrupted was a mere 11 seconds. There are many styles of listening that can be utilized to ensure that the client is allowed to share all their concerns, questions, and feelings about the appointment.

GettyImages-944493796.jpg

Team communication should focus on ensuring all staff members are aware of what is happening with clients and patients throughout the appointment.

Provide Consistent Client Education

In the 2018 AAHA/AVMA Opportunity White Paper, a large gap existed between client and staff perceptions of what was important during a preventive care visit and what occurred during the examination. Clients who hear recommendations from multiple team members are likely to realize the importance of the recommendation and be more likely to comply. It is essential that these recommendations be consistent no matter how client communication is occurring—face to face, by phone, virtually, or in writing—or who is delivering the information.

Team members should not just memorize the clinic’s preventive care recommendations. They should be provided with the education to understand why these recommendations are important. Developing this understanding allows every team member, no matter their role, to provide basic client education and answer basic questions. Team members who aren’t comfortable answering specific questions about a recommendation can direct the owner to ask the veterinarian during the appointment.

Establish Communication Between Team Members

An exceptional client experience relies not only on consistent messaging but also on clear communication between team members, especially between the CSR and nursing teams.

At times, there seems to be an invisible line between “the front” and “the back” of the clinic. CSRs feel underappreciated by the nursing team and veterinarians despite taking the brunt of client anger over wait times, limited availability of appointments, or the expense of the visit. Meanwhile, members of the nursing team are frustrated by the scheduling of appointments, feeling the CSRs don’t understand the amount of work they do in each appointment. These frustrations can easily create a barrier to communication that can impact patient visits and overall morale of clinic staff.

Team communication should focus on ensuring all staff members are aware of what is happening with clients and patients throughout the appointment. Clear communication between team members will help to manage client expectations. If the nursing staff and veterinarians are running behind schedule, this should be communicated to the front desk so the CSRs can prepare clients for a longer wait time.

Additionally, a CSR is often the last person your clients see during their visit as they prepare to depart. Having a CSR who is well informed of what happened during the pet’s visit, when they are expected back, and if there are test results pending can make a good impression on clients and demonstrate a high level of efficiency in the clinic.

Take-Home Message

Creating a clinic culture that provides communication training, encourages inter-team communication, and empowers all team members to participate in client education is the key to creating a successful whole-team communication strategy. Clients, patients, and veterinary team members will benefit from this holistic approach to client communication. 

D-CC-Boatright_Bio_Pic.jpg
Kate Boatright, VMD, has been in small animal practice since graduating from the University of Pennsylvania in 2013. After nearly 8 years of full time practice in both general practice and emergency clinics, she moved to part-time clinical work to pursue her passion for educating veterinary professionals as a freelance speaker and author. She believes deeply in the role of organized veterinary medicine and holds leadership positions in the AVMA and PVMA. In her remaining time, she stays busy chasing her toddler, running, reading, and watching movies with her husband and cats.

 

Photo credits: SDI Productions/E+ via Getty Images; fstop123/E+ via Getty Images; Cecilie_Arcurs/E+ via Getty Images; FlamingoImages/iStock via Getty Images

Advertisement

Close

Subscribe to NEWStat