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Better Medicine is Better Business: Compassionate Clinic Culture in Action

Robin Downing, DVM

Clinic Culture in Action

Let's look at a real-life example of practice culture at work. Remember that compassionate care and pet advocacy are our guiding values. Think about the advocacy roles within your own practice teams. Think about the implications when every member of the team is thinking about how they are communicating the practice's values and culture to the client.


A client presents an 8 week-old kitten for its first wellness examination and vaccination. How can every member of the team work to communicate to that client the practice's commitment to compassionate care - - its culture of advocacy? What role can each person play?

The Receptionist

The receptionist provides the first, and often lasting, impression of the practice. It is important to help each client feel welcome, comfortable, and confident that your team can provide that pet with the very best care possible.

For the client with a new kitten, the receptionist should present and review the material contained in the practice's "Kitten Packet". Because our clients are going to experience some sensory overload when they bring a pet to us, it is important to provide them with written materials to support what they hear. Helping the client by pointing out what is contained in the written material will help them organize their use of the material later.

The receptionist should also address the importance of a "pet taxi" if the client has simply carried the kitten in his or her arms. Ideally, there is a pet carrier available for sale should the client so choose. It is appropriate for the receptionist to lay the foundation for some of the discussions to come - - nutritional recommendations, frequency of wellness visits, the timing of the ovariohysterectomy or neuter, etc. The receptionist should also talk about the grooming aids available for the client to use to keep the kitten's coat clean, shiny, and free of mats.

The Licensed Veterinary Nurse

The next member of the practice team to spend time with the client is the licensed veterinary nurse (veterinary assistant if there are no veterinary nurses in the practice). During the preliminary examination and history-taking, the nurse should discuss the practice's nutritional recommendation, as well as cover basic wellness topics. The goal is to complement the written material the client is taking home, as well as to communicate a commitment to attention to detail about that animal's wellness for its entire life. This means explaining to the client normal kitten and cat behaviors like scratching, being nocturnal, "going vertical", etc. So many perceived pet misbehaviors are nothing more than a pet exhibiting normal behaviors that have never been explained as such to the client. Knowing what to expect empowers the client to modify the behavior if need be. The veterinary nurse should trim the kitten's toenails, explaining to the client how it is done, and offering the appropriate trimmer for sale. Every veterinary nurse/veterinary assistant in the practice should have his or her own business card to give to the client with instructions for them to call that individual if there are any questions.

The Veterinarian

The client is next "handed off" to the veterinarian. This should be a seamless transition if we are trying to communicate a high standard of care. The veterinary nurse of assistant "briefs" the veterinarian about the kitten's state of health, the client's level of satisfaction with the kitten, he topics discussed, and any specific concerns the client has. If the veterinarian enters the room with knowledge ahead, the practice's culture of compassionate care and pet advocacy is reinforced.

It is the veterinarian's obligation to communicate the practice culture by focusing on the appropriate medical issues. He or she must outline what will happen at this visit and the next, and the timing of the ovariohysterectomy or neuter. In addition (and this is what sets a pet advocacy practice apart from other practices), the veterinarian should address in very general terms the issues the pet owner will face when that kitten is an adult and when it is a geriatric. This is a picture painted in very broad strokes, but it lays a valuable foundation for the future with that client. (See cover story, Veterinary Economics, July 2000, "Educating Clients Early")

The Support Staff Member

Everyone in the practice should be involved in communicating the practice's values and vision to clients. In this scenario, the support staff member has the opportunity to be the kitten's advocate by educating the client about litter pan do's and don'ts:

•  Helping the client choose cat litter (Does your practice make a specific product recommendation, or have a product for sale? If not, think about adding that as a service to your clients with cats.)

•  Helping the client understand how many litter pans are appropriate based on the number of cats in the household

•  Helping the client to position the litter pans in the house to maximize good bathroom etiquette

•  Explaining the appropriate depth of litter in the pan as well as the appropriate timing of clean-up

A support team members can also be leveraged to teach this client how to play with his or her cat using a LASER cat toy (Do you have this product available for sale?) or other appropriate interactive cat toys.

What Next?

It isn't hard to see from this example how easy it is to get every team member involved in communicating your practice's values and vision - - your clinic culture of compassionate care. It means a commitment to training, and it means holding individuals on the team accountable for using the training they have received. But the rewards are great for taking this approach with every aspect of a practice. The practice benefits from a higher "bottom line" because clients who are placed in the center of the care-giving circle and understand the level of care that is available for their pets will spend more money. Team members benefit from higher self-esteem and a sense of making a difference (this includes the veterinarian). Clients benefit because they know what options are available for their pets - - it is easier for them to say "yes" to a particular work-up or treatment if they know what to expect. And finally, the pet benefits because we have empowered its human guardian to make the very best decisions on that animal's behalf - - that's what advocacy is all about after all.

More examples of compassionate care in action:

Pre-anaesthesia laboratory evaluation.

Pre-emptive pain management.

Advocating for special needs pets.

Compassionate care beyond a cure - - advocating for the animal cancer patient.

Compassionate handling of euthanasia

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