The primacy of pets in clients' lives today resembles their importance in the lives of veterinarians who entered the profession due to their involvement with animals. Clients become deeply attached to and care about the health and well-being of their companions. Their expectations for veterinary care are becoming more similar to that ideally provided in human medicine—clients anticipate superb care for both the animal and themselves. As high-tech medicine expands within veterinary specialties, a more sophisticated level of family support is required and expected by many clients. The current elevated importance of animals revolutionizes the nature of veterinary practice to include the entire family. Because veterinarians now deal with the entire family plus the animal, and no longer just treat the animal, the style and emphasis of companion animal practices have shifted, as reflected in the terms “veterinary family practice” or “veterinary community practice.”
Such practices build lifelong relationships with families and their animals. A new animal brought into the family is the occasion to discuss the animal's life cycle with the family and provide an overview that can optimize the likelihood of a positive relationship with few behavioral problems. Emotional needs of the family are addressed along with the medical needs of the animal. Upper-socioeconomic clients are especially likely to view their pets as companions. Many clients with companion animals are families with young children, particularly clients who have both a dog and a cat. These families are likely to have significantly more pet-related or veterinary service expenditures.
Animals are acknowledged to play a central and formative role in children's lives. Some studies have reported that pet-owning pre-adolescents score higher on measures of self-esteem and autonomy. Practitioners may consider giving special thought to incorporating children into their communications with the family, making it easy for families with children to be comfortable during consultation (eg, provision of play areas and planning for children to be present in or visibly near the examination room). Hospitals providing extended diagnoses and treatments to animals sometimes find entire families coming in to offer support to the animal, perhaps spending hours to be on hand when the animal is available; these hospitals may want to plan accommodation near at hand for such families.
Providing areas for relaxation, softer light in public areas, and comfortable seating in exam rooms without barriers from the medical staff are some features that improve customer satisfaction. Impeccable cleanliness also matters. In veterinary practices with these values, everyone understands that every medical intervention carries emotional consequences and that medical competence and providing emotional support go hand-in-hand. Various resources provide models for veterinary staffs based on skilled communication.
The key role of communication was revealed in recent studies of the owner-pet and client-veterinarian bond as it affects the care that pets receive. The effectiveness of communication significantly affects the loyalty of the pet owner to the veterinarian. Pet owners are more concerned with the health and well-being outcomes for the animal, whereas veterinarians often emphasize time and services in their communications. Clients value the genuine love and interest that veterinarians have in their animals. Focus groups have revealed that clients expect veterinarians to educate them, explaining important information clearly and in various formats. Clients want to be provided options and offered a respectful partnership with the veterinarian. They expect 2-way communication with good language exchanging, listening, and asking the right questions. When these interactions fail, a breakdown in communication can arise.
Clients feel strongly about the quality of life of their pets, as revealed in studies involving surgery or medical problems of pets. The clients want effective pain management for the animal before, during, and after spaying or neutering, even though they may not wish to administer such medication at home. People feel that a good quality of life for their dogs includes mobility, play or mental stimulation, health, and companionship. Owners of dogs with heart disease expressed extreme concern regarding their inability to subjectively assess whether their pet is suffering. A strong majority would trade their pet's longevity for quality of life. Among variables of quality of life, the pet's ability to interact with them was the most important.
A study of successful veterinarians reported that nontechnical competencies were essential, including interpersonal relationship-building skills. Using such skills, veterinarians and their staffs facilitate clients' understanding of medical situations and preventive medicine. They can encourage clients to attend puppy socialization classes to improve retention of dogs, assist in behavioral assessments, and prepare clients for providing palliative care or dealing with end-of-life issues. Client adherence is generally lower than believed by veterinarians, but followup communication improves the level of adherence. Curricula for veterinary students increasingly provide practice in building communication skills, allowing students to rehearse engaging the clients, asking open-ended questions, offering reflective listening and empathy, educating the clients, meeting the clients' and patients' needs, and emphasizing support and partnership.
Despite optimal communication skills, research has shown that veterinarians inevitably encounter clients who are inattentive, neglectful, over-involved, or cost-focused, and patients who are uncontrolled, dangerous, or dirty, adding to medical and emotional problems. Almost all veterinarians feel they were not prepared by their education and training for dealing with such nonmedical issues. Making plans in advance and developing specific protocols for interventions can prepare the veterinary staff with strategies for these occasions.
Last full review/revision March 2012 by Lynette A. Hart, PhD