Ummm, Where is Doctor X? I was scheduled with her! She has seen Fluffy for 10 years. I asked for her when I scheduled this appointment today, your receptionist said she was here.” This is what I encountered several days ago. As a relief veterinarian this was not the first time this has happened to me. How would you handle this situation? How would this make you feel?

When I first started out in my veterinary career this made my stomach turn, my hands shake and my confidence would wavier. In some cases I was the only doctor there and the upset client was left to see the new doctor that never had seen their beloved Fluffy and her myriad of conditions and frequent concerning symptoms. When pet owners are worried about their pet’s condition, whether it be a big or small change for this pet, they want some familiarity to give them confidence it their decision to bring their pet into see the veterinarian. Despite the growing numbers of pets being treated like family there is always a financial concern or emotional well-being of family that puts stress on owners to bring the pet to be examined.

As veterinarians we need to first remember why we got into this career and focus on the pet first. Way back when this first happened to me, I persevered and successfully got through the appointment. I ran diagnostics (also for Dr X to review when back in office), I treated patient and came out unscathed and sometimes with a newly acquired client. Sometimes I barely made it through or sometimes maybe not at all and the client left and rescheduled with Dr. X. Over time my client communication skills improved while my imposter syndrome started to take a back seat to a confident yet always a little leary newly minted Doctor of Veterinary Medicine.

Fast forward to 10 years later and 4 years of relief practice. I got this A LOT when I first started as relief. Even though the clinic’s front desk staff would inform owners when scheduling appointments or when walking in for an urgent care exam that they would see the relief doctor, some owners were still upset their beloved Dr. X was not in the office. I have even had some say “How could Dr. X go on vacation while my BooBoo is sick and leave me to see you?“, always with a “No offense to you” comment thrown in there somewhere.

In these situations I always immediately direct the client’s attention to their pet and the concerns they came into the hospital for. Diversion. Turn their attention away from the possibility that someone made a mistake when scheduling (truthful or not). Pet the patient, comment on any unique qualities they might have, and ACTIVELY LISTEN to the client. If they still go on about the misunderstanding in scheduling, then simply offer them the earliest appointment time with Dr. X available or maybe another doctor that could have seen the pet before. Some will take the offer and leave and you are done. But others will go back to the worry for their pet. This is what happened this past week.

I continued to listen to the clients concerns; the pet’s clinical signs and duration of signs, I answered questions they had but I could tell they were still unsure if they trusted me with Fluffy’s care. I offered them some time alone to discuss before I did a physical exam and potential diagnostics we had discussed. No pressure or condescending tones, just being quiet, listening and empathizing with their worry for their painful pet. Five or ten minutes passed after leaving the room, I had another appointment waiting on me so I had to get started on it, so my office manager went in to see if the clients wanted to reschedule or continue with me today. They agreed to let me continue my consultation and exam of their pet.

We performed the diagnostics (abdominal radiographs) and they were pretty much normal (with a couple of exceptions) that helped me to rule out some possible scary diagnoses for these owners. I took extra time to go over the radiographs in detail, showed them normal and abnormal, discussed next possible steps in diagnostics or treatment plan going forward. And promised to review content with Dr. X when she was back in the office. We elected to do a trial of medications while we waited on radiology consult to review the rads.

The clients left satisfied with my exam, diagnostics and treatment plan. They were appreciative that I took the extra time and did not brush off their concerns and thankful for the care I showed when examining their painful pup. It took more than my scheduled appointment time and I had to see multiple patients at the same time while radiographs were being taken and put me behind schedule a little bit. I had to keep other clients happy while managing a difficult case and frustrated owner. In order to do this and have successful outcome I had to effectively communicate to my clients and rely on my support staff to help me complete tasks (take rads, fill medications, put in charges, document in medical records, continue client communication/education, etc).

Client communication is touched on in veterinary school in clinical years but it is a skill that is very much learned on the job. Some doctors figure it out right away or have the personality that already draws clients in. I on the other hand shied away from confrontation when I first started, however I started to realize the things I did that were effective and I honed in on my love for client education. After switching my career from full-time associate to full-time relief also helped me adapt to new and sometimes difficult situations. Combining my strengths as a clinician and picking up tips along the way from my mentors have helped me become a much better communicator.

Do you have questions on how you can prevent situations like this? Customer service was also a very big component to this scenario and we handled this by getting the manager involved right away and again listening to the clients’ concerns.

Are there any tips that you have received over the years that helped you become a better communicator?

Leave an answer in the comments (veterinary medicine experience is not required to answer)

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