As veterinarians, our clients expect us to have attained and to maintain our professional competence in terms of diagnosis,
prognosis and treatment of various diseases. That is often considered the science of veterinary medicine. Ethics demand that
we not let ill-conceived treatments jeopardize the welfare of our patients. But our effectiveness in caring for patients is
not guaranteed by mastering the knowledge and technical skills of the science of veterinary medicine. We must develop and
utilize attributes that demonstrate to our clients that we care about our patients. That is encompassed by the art of veterinary
medicine. Many of our clients won't care how much we know until they know how much we care. That prompts the question, "How
do our clients recognize that we care?"
Make a connection: It won't matter how skilled you are in the science of veterinary medicine, if you don't hone your craft
of client communication.
Speak their language
There are qualities that clearly signal to our clients that we sincerely care about them and their companion animals. One
is our ability to communicate. It is a distinct art to talk medicine in the language of a nonmedical person. We must speak
to our clients in a way that is helpful, without giving the impression that we are talking down to them. Our conversation
should be gracious as well as sensible. Our clients will feel our respect for them if we speak in a dignified and caring manner.
In some situations, what we say may be less important than how we say it. To paraphrase Hippocrates, our words should "first
do no harm." Thought and practice are often required to express the right things in the right way.
Listen to understand —not simply to respond
Effective communication involves more than our speaking ability. It is linked to our ability to listen. In addition to developing
our IQs, we must develop our EAR-Qs. Too often, we do not listen with the intent of understanding (empathic listening) because
we have developed the habit of listening with the intent of replying (reactive listening).
Empathic listening is motivated by our intent to understand and demonstrate our respect for, and appreciation of, our clients
and their companion animals. We should listen to understand the meaning of words, noting the feeling with which they are said.
To be effective listeners, we must also take note of what our clients do not say. Before we contradict our clients, we must
try to understand them. In the long run, good listeners usually earn greater trust and confidence from their clients than
good talkers do.
Kindness is another quality that will signal to our clients that we deeply care. Kindness encompasses the desire to take
an active interest in others and to demonstrate our interest by helpful acts in addition to considerate words. We show kindness
by being friendly, gentle, compassionate, gracious, generous, patient and hospitable. Kindness also makes us considerate of
our clients' viewpoints, especially when they differ from our own. It is kindness that attaches itself to a mission until
its purpose in connection with that mission is realized.
If after application of our scientific knowledge and skills, we cannot take away our clients' concerns or frustrations caused
by the pain or suffering of their pets, we can demonstrate our willingness to share them by our actions. However, our kindness
should not be motivated by profit. We must use caution not to think of every solution in terms of the bottom line. Ethics
call us to put the interest of our patients above our own financial interest. We must not lose sight of the fact that the
veterinary profession has a service motive rather than a profit motive.
Heartfelt caring also results in trusting relationships that enhance our ability to provide effective patient care. Clients
are more likely to listen to our interpretations of the causes of their concerns and to our recommendations when they understand
how cooperating or complying with a request or a suggestion will benefit them.
So, how do clients recognize that we care? Their expectation that we are professionally competent is a given. But more is
required. For some, caring may be more important than curing. Thus, we must strive not to be more concerned with the study
of diseases than with the study of patients. When all is said and done, caring can only be measured by the action it prompts.
Dr. Osborne, a diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine, is professor of medicine in the Department of Small Animal
Clinical Sciences, College of Veterinary Medicine, University of Minnesota.
For a complete list of articles by Dr. Osborne, visit