Communication Breakdown

Josh Cruz, DVM, discusses 10 Tips for Client Communication in the ER

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Client communication is one of the most important skills for the veterinary team. Even during emergency situations time must be taken to communicate well. This article from a seasoned ER DVM gives you tips of the trade to keep yourself and your clients on the same page.


Looking back on a busy weekend, I often find myself strangely depleted and energized at the same time. After the myriad of conversations, countless emotions, sick animals and bereft owners, the day can leave you exhausted. Unfortunately some of the most memorable moments during these times are those conversations that never went as well as you hoped. While learning to handle the good and bad of individual cases is something we become accustomed to more frequently with practice, they do provide insight on the nature of one of the key components or our profession: communication.

While there are various communication styles out there, each with their own strengths and weaknesses, here are 10 tips that help keep me focused while seeing emergency cases.


1) Have a plan
Often while seeing multiple cases at a time, stop and review each case and decide what you think needs to be done for each patient before going into the room.

2) Give the same talk once
In situations where other family members, a petsitter, or legal guardians may need to hear the conversation, try to get them in the room together or at least on speakerphone. This will save you valuable time later in your shift when you don’t have to update four different people with the same information on the same patient.

3) Give options
Whether we like it not, every owner has options. When it comes down to euthanasia vs. advanced treatment, SQ vs. IV fluids, or senior screens and dentals, respect must be given to the decision making process. Informing owners of what you believe to be the best option for the patient will often steer the conversation towards a concise outcome.

4) Expand and then simplify
Patients often have multiple disease processes, previous histories, and treatment needs. If clients seem confused, stay simple, go back to the plan, and reiterate the basics.  

5) Manage your and your clients’ time
People process information so much slower during stressful situations. Giving clients a few minutes to process information, call family, or spend some time with their pet can often help speed up the decision rather than a continuous conversation. This obviously has to be tailored for the stability and the amount of critical care needed for each patient. Also be cognizant of people with special needs and those under the influence of drugs or alcohol. They may need more time.

6) The honest dollar
Finances matter and need to be discussed in the emergency setting. Often many of the breakdowns in communication are related to finances, but most people also realize that services cost something. Try to be as honest as possible with cost and most clients will be appreciative.

7) Focus on the patient
Even when the conversation turns sour, come back to patient care, options, and what your plan is to make the animal better. Grief exhibits itself in so many ways: (anger, disbelief, confusion); being too critical of a client’s response can distract you from the overall goal.

8) Teamwork
Every part of your staff can contribute to positive outcome. Letting the front desk staff, technicians, assistants, and even other doctors know about individual communications that may need smoothing out can often save time and heartache.  

9) You can please some people some of the time, but you can’t please all people all of the time.
No matter how strong your patience or how well all of the other tips and tricks work, there is always going to be someone who does not share your communication style. I never feel it is wrong to offer a second opinion. Illustrate that the more doctors there are to think about the patient, the better.  

10) Be present
By this I mean, try to stay positive and enjoy each interaction. The desire to talk to people, while sometimes exhausting, makes all the difference in the world to that client. Find out specifics about the patient including name, breed, quality of character, etc., that appeals to you and your own interests. The job is hard enough without you making it harder.

I often feel the best way to get someone to confide in you is to confide in them how you want to care for their pet. Even if everything else is failing, your compassion for each patient should be enough to mend even the toughest of communication breakdowns.

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