A good friend of mine recently reminded me of a classic if obscure animal behavior experiment called the "Pike Study." Without going into great detail (you can see a video on YouTube, naturally) the study involved northern pike fish, some of the most aggressive and voracious feeders in North American waters. In the study, the pike could see but were repeatedly denied access to their favorite food: minnows. A glass barrier between the pike and the minnows led to constant and repeated frustration during the pikes' feeding attempts, and eventually they gave up. Not too surprising.
"Golly, Mike, what happened next?" you ask. Well, let me tell you.
Nada. Nichts. Rien. Nothing. The minnows went about their business; the pike ignored them. In one report the pike actually starved to death in the presence of food swimming around. I can't help but wonder what the minnows thought. Did they swim around playing "Duck, Duck, Goose" with the pike, or did they simply accept their presence as the new norm?
You might be wondering why this would interest you—assuming you're not a northern pike activist. When I read the study I thought, "Are veterinarians victims of the Pike Syndrome?" Think of the minnows as veterinary clients and service opportunities. The pool that is our practice is stocked with clients, opportunities and service options. They flitter around and we want to reach them. Now, veterinarians are certainly not opportunists or predators; however, we do rely on our clients for energy and encouragement to keep us offering and providing all we are capable of.
Much like the glass partition that kept the pike away from their food, self-imposed glass barriers often separate us from our clients.
"I've had that discussion about parasites. My clients aren't interested."
"I've talked to them about obesity. They don't listen."
"My clients can't afford senior pet wellness screening."
"I've already tried—my clients don't want nutrition counseling."
"I don't believe in laser therapy."
A thousand pieces of glass that we perceive as a solid sheet stand between them and us. Veterinary clients and their pets come in and out, and we focus so intently on the "glass" that we fail to provide or advocate for things we should.
How often do you discuss weight management? How often do you advocate for appropriate vaccinations based on a risk assessment of patient lifestyle? How many of your patients are on year-round heartworm and parasite prevention and control? How many of your patients have regular testing of blood parameters?
We start making assumptions about others, and soon those assumptions become a glass wall. It becomes an excuse for not asking, not advocating and not even trying. The glass wall against which all of us have bumped our noses has resulted in us believing wrongly that each and every client, each and every patient is not an opportunity to serve and provide. The glass wall exists in our minds. Every client is an n of one and must be provided with information, service and value. We must assume they want the best.
Many in our profession are currently like those poor pike—hungry, disenchanted, surrounded by opportunity but afraid to bump their noses, afraid to be told no. Some of our colleagues will surely starve surrounded by plenty.
I routinely hear people say "Most of my patients ... " or "We usually ... " Veterinarians offer their absolute best pet care recommendations much of the time, but they are neither consistent nor persistent. We must be sure that all clients are offered the best options every time they bring their pets in for care. To usually offer the best to most of our clients is not good enough.
As Joe Calloway said in Becoming a Category of One: How Extraordinary Companies Transcend Commodity and Defy Comparison (Wiley, 2009), "Every time we fail to 'do it right' we have to start again."
So break through that glass wall. Put yourself out there in the interest of your clients, your patients and your veterinary practice.
Dr. Michael Paul, @mikepauldvm on Twitter, is a nationally known speaker and columnist and the principal of Magpie Veterinary Consulting. He lives in Anguilla in the British West Indies.