3 Tips For Successful Conversations that Save Lives

by Kate Boatright, VMD
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3 Tips For Successful Conversations that Save Lives
conversation between veterinarian and pet owner

One of the most emotionally charged conversations I have with clients is the one about how much their pet’s care will cost. These conversations are often magnified in the stressful setting of an emergency, where minutes matter and funds may be in short supply.

Taking the time to educate clients on disease prevention, the cost of sick and emergency care and how to prepare for these situations before they occur can reduce stress (for both clients and the vet team) and save lives.

Preventative Care

Thanks to modern medicine, we have learned a lot about common diseases in our patients and how to prevent them.

For example, we have highly efficacious vaccines for common viral diseases and effective parasite prevention for both internal and external parasites. We know that spaying at an appropriate age prevents pyometra and reduces the risk of mammary cancer and maintaining a healthy weight helps pets to live longer and reduces the risk of diabetes and orthopedic disease.

But do our clients know these things?

We have many opportunities to educate our clients about the importance of preventative care—during puppy and kitten visits and adult and senior wellness visits. Let’s make an effort to educate our clients at these appointments. You may be surprised to find how many clients agree to your recommendations once they understand the benefits to their pet’s health.

For example, instead of just asking “Do you want/need heartworm prevention today?,” a doctor or staff member can start a conversation with something like, “We recommend your pet be on a monthly preventative for heartworm and intestinal parasites.” This can lead into a short explanation of the dangers of these parasites and end with the question, “How many doses would you like to purchase today for Fluffy?” It may not always work, but at least we know that we have educated the client thoroughly.

Another branch of successful preventative care includes disease screening with annual testing. Many pet owners anticipate an annual fecal test and heartworm and tick screening. Screening labwork, especially in senior and geriatric pets should become a standard expectation for clients as well. We know that detecting disease early allows us to intervene with treatment to slow the progression of the disease and improve the patient’s quality and length of life. It can also save money through early detection (e.g. an uncomplicated diabetic is much easier to treat than a patient presenting in DKA.)

Clients want the best for their pets, and it is up to us to educate them on how to keep their pet healthy, happy and pain-free for as long as possible.

Pet Insurance

Despite our best efforts to protect our pets, they may still get sick or injured. Prepare clients for this possibility before it happens. New pet visits are a great time to talk about preparing for emergency care. Pet insurance can offer a great solution to managing a sick pet or an emergency.

Some clients may come to us knowing about pet insurance, but many do not realize exactly how it works. When talking to clients about pet insurance, it is important to stress to them that it does not work the same as our health insurance. On most plans, the client is responsible for the bill up front and will be reimbursed later from the insurance company. This means that a client still must have access to funds in the event of an emergency.

Making sure that clients are aware of what pet insurance can offer when a pet is young and healthy is an essential part of preparedness for an ill or injured pet. With waiting periods and exclusions for pre-existing conditions, pet insurance does require forethought and preparation on the part of the client.

3 Tips for Successful Conversations

In a busy clinic where you are running from one 10- or 20-minute appointment to another, trying to return phone calls, and care for sick patients, it may feel like an overwhelming task to have these conversations with every patient. The good news is that you don’t have to do all the work yourself.

1. Leverage Your Support Staff

We have a powerful, often underutilized, resource in our clinics—our support staff. Many of them build great rapport with the clients and spend more time with the patients than we doctors sometimes do. These individuals should be empowered to have these important conversations with clients.

Consistent messaging is a crucial part of a successful preventative care program. Develop a staff training program to teach your staff the key talking points—every staff member, from the front desk to the kennel, can play a role. All staff members should be able to answer general questions about preventative care.

2. Fill Wait Times with Education

Many clients will spend at least a few minutes alone in your waiting room or examination room during their appointment. Instead of having them stare at a blank wall or watch the local news on a TV, use this time for education. Many companies provide educational materials, such as flyers or interactive displays, that can be displayed in the clinic.

In the clinic where I am an associate, for example, each of our examination rooms has a bulletin board with educational materials. We cycle the content of these boards periodically, but one of our most successful presentations was on common preventable emergency situations, like pyometra, parvovirus, or lyme disease. For each condition, we provided a brief description of the disease and our general estimate for treatment. Then we provided information on disease prevention and the cost of this prevention.

This display sparks many conversations with pet owners that we might not have had otherwise. When they see the serious nature of the disease and the cost of treatment, they want to know more about how to protect their pets.

3. Direct Clients to Appropriate Resources

Many of our clients spend a lot of time online. Let’s provide them with accurate information through our social media and webpages. Some clinics will post checklists, short video clips or blog posts about common conditions that clients can engage with outside of the clinic. There are numerous reliable sources for information on pet health care that we can direct our clients to.

When it comes to pet insurance, it can be an overwhelming task to navigate the growing number of plan options. Some cover only illness and injury while others will cover preventative care. Deductibles, copays and maximums vary by condition and plan. Clients may ask how much they can expect to pay out of pocket or over the life of their pet. These answers are best answered by pet insurance experts. Referring clients to an objective education resource that can provide them a breakdown of available plans and pros and cons for their particular situation can make having the pet insurance conversation much less stressful for staff members.

About the author

Kate Boatright, VMD

Associate Veterinarian - NVA Butler Veterinary Associates and Emergency Center

Dr. Kate Boatright, VMD, works as a small animal general practitioner and emergency clinician in western Pennsylvania at NVA Butler Veterinary Associates and Emergency Center. Her clinical interests include feline medicine, surgery, internal medicine, and emergency. As a writer and speaker, Dr. Boatright enjoys educating veterinary students and colleagues about communication, team building, and the unique challenges facing recent graduates. Outside of the clinic, she is active in her state and local VMAs, the AVMA, and serves on the VBMA Alumni Committee. She’s a 2013 alumn of the University of Pennsylvania, and she enjoys running and spending time with her husband, son, and three cats.

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