The biggest lie veterinarians tell themselves
Sometimes we tell ourselves lies to make life easier. We say things like, “I was walking in and out of exam rooms all day long. That counts as exercise,” or “There’s a ban on cellphones in the office, but everyone will understand that it doesn’t apply to me.” We kid ourselves to feel better, and it usually works.
To be fair, most of these tall tales are pretty harmless. However, some come back to bite us. There’s one particular lie that undermines the way we practice, communicate and provide patient care. It affects how we educate veterinarians and how we operate our clinics. Here’s the lie:
If we just tell average pet owners what’s best for their pets, they’ll do it.
Isn’t this a wonderful idea? The problem is that, most of the time, it’s not true. And we know it.
Don’t get me wrong—this isn’t an attack on pet owners. I’m not saying people fail to follow doctors’ orders because they’re bad people or don’t love their pets. However, the question persists. Why?
The case of the crappy car owner
Sometimes in my lectures to veterinarians, I talk about the type of car owner I am. (Spoiler alert: I’m awful.) I love my car and use it extensively. I fully understand how much I depend on it and what a bind I would be in without it. Yet I don’t take very good care of it.
When it comes to fixing problems, I head right to the shop. I’m just not so great about the regular maintenance. The auto places always give me a list of what’s best for my car. It’s just that life/work/parenthood/finances/time keep getting in the way.
One day, after I made this confession in a talk, a feline practitioner shared her candid feedback with me. She said, “You know, you shouldn’t tell that story about your car.” I asked her why not. “Because it makes you look like one of those bad cat owners. The ones who never come in on time. You don’t want people to think that’s you.”
But here’s the thing: That is me. And it’s probably you. It’s almost all of us.
How many people have cars that are due for maintenance? How many of us are past due for a physical or a dental appointment? Is anyone putting off funding a retirement account or college fund?
Listen, I’m not actually a bad cat owner. My pets receive great care not only because I’m a certifiable animal lover, but because I’m a trained veterinary professional. That’s not the case for the vast majority of our clients. They love their pets, but they also love their kids, their jobs, their hobbies, the idea of retirement and their teeth. Everyone has only so much money, time and energy, and no one thinks about pet health in their real lives as much as veterinary professionals do. Let’s face it: Most people are about as consistent at keeping up with pet care as I am with handling my car maintenance.
What we’ve gotten wrong—and how we can get it right
For years, I believed that if we just sat down and explained things to pet owners, they would do what was best for their pets. I’m sorry to say that I don’t believe this anymore. While this idea is comforting and makes it easier for us to shake it off when we make recommendations people decide not to follow, it’s simply not true. If we can come to grips with that, I think we can modify our approach in two ways to fix the problem:
1. Innovate to communicate. Often, our idea of client education is a single conversation between the pet owner and the veterinarian in the exam room. It’s an isolated interaction between a doctor and a person who may or may not be the patient’s decision maker. It’s also generally unstructured, brief and happening in front of a pet, a natural distraction. In short, it’s a frantic mess.
Educating pet owners in this fashion can yield only limited success. If we are going to successfully compel people to take specific actions, the messages we send must be clear, focused and repeated through multiple channels. We must help pet owners understand why we are making the recommendations and what they need to do. Conversation is one way to deliver these messages. Email, text messaging, videos, infographics, blog posts, interesting articles and smartphone apps are just a few ideas. Effective client communication is the single greatest opportunity for innovation in our profession today.
2. Stop abdicating our position. I have a friend who despises choosing a restaurant. In fact, it’s nearly impossible to get her to weigh in on any sort of dinner-related decision. The reason is that she doesn’t want to feel accountable if the place we visit is underwhelming. She takes comfort in always being able to say, “Well, it was your choice.” For a friend and a dinner decision, this is fine. But what if everyone approached choices this way?
Yes, we need to present pet owners with options, but we cannot relinquish our responsibility to guide their decisions. Too often, we say “Well, you could ... ” and then present a multiple-choice scenario with options that may seem perfectly clear to us but are confusing to our clients. We feel good about putting the choice in their hands, but then we wonder why they so often default to the cheapest option. (The one element that’s not confusing in all of this? Price. You don’t need a medical degree to understand that part.)
Instead, what if we presented options in the context of making a strong recommendation? For example, we can use statements like, “Based on what we’ve discussed, the plan I’d recommend is … ” or simply, “To address your concerns, we need to … ” We can use these phrases and still give people options. However, they offer clear direction on how best to move forward and take advantage of our education, training and experience.
If we are acting ethically, listening to our clients and their needs and practicing a good standard of care, we should be able to give options while also making clear what path we believe will best serve the pet and owner. When we refuse to commit to any recommendation, we abdicate our position as a guide, consultant and doctor. I believe that also means we fail our clients.
Letting go of the biggest lie we tell ourselves in veterinary practice means we have to make some changes. We have to change how and what we communicate in order to increase the odds that pet owners will take the best action for their pets. In that way, we can ensure that when we tell clients what’s best, they’re hearing it and doing it. We can turn the lie into a truth.
I think I’m ready. Are you?