Do you speak “client?”

June 10, 2018

The language we speak as veterinary team professionals is crucial to client understanding and patient care.

Whether it was in a formal class in school or learned on the job, veterinary professionals know medical terminology and can speak the “veterinary” language, slang and all. We’re even proud of it because it’s not an easy language to learn.

Unless the pet parents happen to be in the medical field, speaking medical terminology won’t do us much good when communicating with them. How often do you speak in the client’s language?

We all know, in veterinary medicine, our patients can’t tell us directly what’s happening. The diagnosis comes from the pet parent’s information, exam and diagnostics. Then, to ensure proper compliance, it is up to the veterinary team to provide clear medical direction for homecare or follow up. Otherwise, we are doing a disservice to our patients.

Medical words

In my career, I have attended many Colorado State Board of Veterinary Medicine meetings as an observer. There are a handful of cases that stand out.

One complaint was against a veterinarian from a pet owner who put her dog through a series of tests and treatments, costing both financial and mental anguish, never understanding that her pet had cancer. Sure, the medical record was loaded with the correct diagnosis and proper recordkeeping.

The misunderstanding came from the fact that the “C” word was never directly said to the client. It wasn’t until much later when someone finally mentioned cancer, that she learned what her pet really had, and then she opted for humane euthanasia.

Do we think we are being kind by saying Osteosarcoma as a “nicer” word than cancer?

In conversations with veterinary clients, finding the right words can be a challenge. Is it proper to say shot or injection? Is it better to say worms or parasites? Is feces more appropriate than poop? [1]

Are you giving the wrong impression to the client? For example, instead of saying “estimate,” say “treatment plan.” Treatment plan emphasizes needed medical care, while estimate is simply about money. [2]

Test Results

Automatically assuming clients know what we mean with test results may be a slippery slope as well. Minimal explanation is not necessarily better when reviewing test results. If peppered with medical jargon, clients will rarely understand.

Another example; after taking a radiograph on a patient presenting with clinical signs for a foreign body, and not seeing one, the typical communication to the client is “we didn’t find anything.”

What does this mean, “My dog doesn’t have any internal organs?” Does the client interpret the veterinary team as incompetent and can’t read an x-ray?

Of course not. The better response would be, “The radiograph gave us really great information because we can now narrow down the problem to find a diagnosis.” This also lets the pet owner know more investigation is necessary and reassures them the diagnostic radiograph was worthwhile. [3]

Bridge the gap

One way to improve communications is to read the client’s body language and nonverbal cues. Paraprofessionals may be the bridge between the medical doctor and compliance.

I worked with a veterinarian (Dr. M) who was a very talented clinician and a wonderful human being. He loved his clients dearly and greeted them first before the pets! At times, he overwhelmed the clients with medical jargon beyond their comprehension.

Case in point; I remember watching a pet parent’s eyes glaze over as Dr. M discussed the details of the disease state of her dog. Once finished, I escorted the client to the front reception area, grabbed a pen and paper, and filled in the gap. I wrote down the signs to look for that Dr. M had mentioned to her during his medical dissertation. She gave me a huge look of relief and show of gratitude as I simply explained it.

Written communication

Handouts discussing disease states, preparing an animal for a visit, surgical procedure, or homecare instructions after a procedure ought to be crystal clear, with NO medical jargon. Consider using visual aids where appropriate – a picture is worth…

Critically evaluate all forms of communication given to the client, both verbal and written, to ensure they are in the client’s language, not in veterinary jargon.

The veterinary profession speaks two languages. It’s essential to use the language the client can relate to, offering the clearest two-way communication between the client and the team. In this way, the patient receives the best care possible.

Here’s to speaking the client’s language (for the sake of the pet)!
Denise Mikita, MS, CVT

  1. Are you speaking pet owners’ language? Mike Paul, DVM. Aug 04, 2017. DVM360 MAGAZINE.
  2. Choose your words carefully in conversations with veterinary clients. Wendy S. Myers, CVJ. Oct 7, 2013.
  3. Avoid this radiography communication mistake. Betsy Charles, DVM, MA. Apr 27, 2018. VETERINARY MEDICINE.