Urban Jungle

PUBLISHED : Friday, 10 August, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 10 August, 2007, 12:00am

This week: Tackling confused clients with good communication skills

One of the difficulties facing a new graduate and sometimes not so new graduates of veterinary science is the overuse of scientific terminology when describing cases to clients. Between ourselves, veterinarians speak a very technical language that helps us describe disease, anatomy, physiology and the like efficiently and accurately to avoid ambiguity. To a layman, who has never learned this language of medicine, it can be very confusing.

With experience and effort, and having seen many clients wide-eyed and pretending to understand, as vets we begin to improve our client communication by using regular language instead of medical terms. Sometimes we can't avoid the use of medical terms and it is the job of the veterinarian to explain the meaning to clients prior to further use. The most likely reason where I would teach clients new medical words is when the client's pet is facing long-term illness and it would save us a lot of time in the future to use the correct terminology.

Another problem facing veterinarians is owner compliance. Poor owner compliance means owners don't apply the treatment as instructed.

And not surprisingly, this is quite intrinsically linked with good client communication. I have to make sure the client truly understands the pet's ailment and proper treatment of the animal. With poor client communication, the owner may not understand how essential the treatment is and may not give the medication as instructed. Even worse, when treatment fails - say, during a drug trial, as it sometimes does - with poor understanding, the negative results may make the client unhappy.

But remember that communication is a two-way affair and I often tell friends that it is also imperative to ask the right questions of their veterinarian, or come to think of it, doctor or dentist. When you leave the consulting room you should understand what was diagnosed, what further tests may be required, what the treatment plan is, how to monitor treatment response and, most importantly, how best to prevent the problem in future.

So don't be shy and ask questions, but remember to listen to the answers and try not to ask the same questions over and over again. It is quite common for clients to rephrase the same question over and over again as he or she did not like the answer or wasn't listening in the first place.

With more experience I find myself doing consultations in metaphor. What that means is, I try to explain things indirectly.

It often makes the problem easier to understand and the consultation more entertaining. Yes, entertaining is important to overcome short attention spans of clients and make the point easier to remember.

Here are some everyday examples:

One of the most common problems of dogs is diarrhoea, mostly likely caused by indiscreet feeding. Most clients have the misconception that this is caused by eating old food or something that has gone bad.

What really happens most of the time is a rapid introduction of a new food that the dog's intestinal tract is not used to. Due to this lack of adaptation and poor digestion, there is an overgrowth of bacteria that causes the diarrhoea. It may sound reasonable and even eloquent on paper, but explaining that to a client can be complicated and often confusing. So I usually resort to telling the client a parable.

For this instance, I tell the client to think of a Buddhist monk who has been a vegetarian all his life. He accidentally eats some chicken ravioli with your family during dinner. Everyone in your family is fine the next day, but the monk, having not the digestive ability of your family, has fallen very ill with diarrhoea, which may even necessitate admission to hospital.

I am often rewarded with a client who is wide-eyed with understanding and appreciation rather than confusion. Another veterinary parable involves the common flea. Clients are often quite defensive when you tell them fleas are the likely cause of their pet's skin problem. They often challenge the veterinarian by saying, 'If my dog has fleas why is it I can't see them?'

I get the client to imagine themselves in a helicopter flying over the Amazon jungle looking out the window. I tell the client that there are a million rats down there - can you see them? Of course not, as they are too small among the giant trees. A flea is also hundreds of times more mobile than a rat. So it is rather unlikely you will see a flea under normal circumstances.

Remember to ask the vet questions but don't resort to parables as it would confuse the living daylights out of him!