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Mistakes happen: Learn how to manage them

Properly dealing with problems will ease tension in workplace

In preparing this article, my mind races back to my days as a veterinary student at Colorado State University. One of the more vivid memories I recall involved my surgery partner. He was performing a femoral head resection. The stockinette leg slips up his arm, and he grabs it with his lower jaw and shoulder just as the surgery professor walks up.

His "oops" seemed appropriate at the time, but the professor did not display the same levity. So we got a "do over" on that surgery on the weekend . . . please Dr. Surgeon, throw us in the briar patch and make us have more surgery time. We decided we needed to say "oops" more often!

The fine line of honesty

Regardless of your skills, knowledge, and most careful intentions, mistakes will happen. Sometimes things won't work because the moon and stars aren't aligned, the client flow is atypical or training is/was inadequate (actually, the latter is most common).

Regardless of the misadventure (medical terminology for mistake), one thing is for sure: If you ever decide to blame someone or something, then you have abdicated accountability for the resolution.

With new veterinary medical doctors, the fear of failure is a major concern. The state board of veterinary medicine usually takes a dim view of any mistake that might cost life or limb, so it is a concern with a real focus on professional survival. Let's start with the easiest issues and evolve the concepts:

House rules

  • Internal issues stay behind the scenes, they are never shared outside the practice.
  • Any time is a good time to ask for assistance.
  • Be prepared to discuss solutions to problems, not people and not just frustrations.
  • If you cannot see the caring intentions of another person in the practice, then do not start the debate.
  • Everyone is an emissary to and for the clients at all times; listen for their needs and exceed expectations.

Boss mistakes

This is the most variable because the boss (practice owner) can have many approaches to a new associate. If you are in a "disposable-doctor" practice, remember there is a geographic maldistribution of veterinary resources, and there is a better job elsewhere.

The other basic premise that must be remembered by new graduates is that while the boss might not always be right, he or she is never wrong.

Discuss the facts; never debate the decision. In most cases, a practice owner would prefer to show a new doctor the way rather than allow an exploration of terror; just ask for help. On the flip side, there are basic skills that a new doctor should know, and if it is converting book knowledge to actual practical skills, repetition is the only solution.

Staff mistakes

The biggest error a new doctor can make with staff is to forget they are an asset to be cherished, and that the three Rs apply all the time: respect, responsibility and recognition.

In most practices, the staff has a much better feel for the routine wellness care than a new doctor who really knows only tertiary care from the university (e.g., can do a heart transplant but has never see a cat fight abscess).

A smart practice allows a new graduate a 20- to 30-day staff-based rotation to allow the new doctor to learn the "practice ways" of doing things. Asking a staff member for guidance on "What is the practice's preferred method?" is not dangerous, but essential.

Client mistakes

Clients are an appreciating asset (à la Tom Peters, management guru), and the return visit must be planned in every encounter (à la Dr. Tom Cat, veterinary consultant).