From the VetPartners Experts: How Emergency and Specialty Practice Teams Can Survive the Dog Days of Summer

Jun 26, 2019 at 1:00 pm
Amanda Donnelly, DVM, MBA

Summer is here, which means things are heating up outside and inside – especially if you work at an emergency or specialty referral practice. Teams working the Fourth of July shift at an ER know to prepare for the inevitable fireworks injuries, heatstroke, “my dog ate the whole plate of brownies,” and big-dog-little-dog scenarios that result because some pet owners just don’t get that not all dogs get along. Likewise, specialty teams deal with summer ocular injuries, orthopedic traumas, management of pancreatitis, and treatment for pets exposed to toxic chemicals.

As if treating sick and injured pets isn’t stressful enough, referral practice employees must also respond to concerned pet owners who may take out their frustrations on whomever is in the line of fire. Now is a good time for practice leaders to remind everyone to use specific communication skills when interacting with upset clients. The following communications will help to calm pet owners and build trust. Moreover, these skills can help teams lessen their work stress.

Ask good questions

For emergency and specialty practices, asking the right questions at the right time helps build rapport with clients and can help increase client compliance with treatment recommendations. Pet owners may feel overwhelmed as they process the severity of their pet’s condition and the associated costs.

Here are examples of questions that help to make an authentic connection with clients:

  • “What kind of toys does Hannah like to play with?”
  • “How did you decide to get a papillon?”
  • “Why did you name your cat Batman?”

Clients don’t always articulate their thoughts regarding their pet’s medical care. The underlying emotions and motivations behind clients’ comments or nonverbal communications aren’t always clear. Asking the right questions helps teams avoid making false assumptions and often leads to greater compliance.

Here are questions you can use to uncover pet owners’ feelings about care and treatment recommendations:

  • “What are your thoughts about how Tigger is responding to treatment?”
  • “What do you know about living with a blind cat?”
  • “How are you feeling about what we’ve discussed so far?”

The role of the veterinary team is invaluable when helping clients achieve peace of mind.  These questions can help clients make decisions that are right for their families:

  • “What concerns do you have about Sophie’s treatment plan?”
  • “What questions do you have about the procedure?”
  • “I sense you’re frustrated by Tigger’s response to treatment.”
  • “How can I help you make this decision?”

Practice reflective listening

Reflective listening statements are frequently used to verify medical information.  A veterinarian may say, “So, Jake vomited twice yesterday and started feeling lethargic this morning, it that correct?”

Reflective listening statements also help to make sure we have listened to clients, that we are processing the correct information, and that we are cognizant of what pet owners are feeling and thinking.  Examples of reflective listening statements include:

  • “I’m hearing you say that you think Oliver’s quality of life is not good, is that correct?”
  • “I understand that you have some budget constraints for what you can spend today.”
  • “If I am hearing you correctly, it sounds like you aren’t sure which treatment option is best for Jake.”

Reflective listening statements invite clients to affirm that you have understood them correctly. If you have made erroneous assumptions, clients have the opportunity to clarify their thoughts and feelings. In addition, reflective listening invites clients to give you more information. This can be critical, particularly when you engage in dialogue about serious medical conditions and need to ascertain the level of understanding by the pet owner and/or their willingness to care for the pet.

Express empathy and more empathy

People want to be heard. They appreciate team members who express empathy. Teams can validate clients’ emotions and convey empathy with statements such as:

  • “I know this was an unexpected illness and how much Sophie means to you.”
  • “I bet it was frustrating to go through that experience.”
  • “I understand you’re angry.”
  • “I know this is an upsetting situation.”
  • “I realize this is a difficult time for you.”
  • “I’m so sorry you’re in this situation.”

You may be thinking that these skills are great, but who has time to train the team right now? The best way to do this is with standing meetings. You can take a few minutes during morning rounds or find a 10-minute time period during the day. Just present one communication at a time. Remind employees of your core values that include client care, and ask them to give examples of what they could say to a client. Then, in follow-up meetings, share success stories of how using the skills helped to defuse anger, made clients feel better, or helped to get more pets the care they deserve.

Communication is one of many essential skills for veterinary professionals. Looking for more practice management resources and help? Check out the VetPartners practice management resource library here.

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Dr. Amanda Donnelly is a speaker, consultant, and author with more than 29 years of experience in the veterinary profession. She is a second-generation veterinarian who combines her practice experience and business expertise to help veterinarians communicate better with their teams and clients. Dr. Donnelly is a graduate of the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Missouri. She is the author of "101 Practice Management Questions Answered," and she writes the "Talk the Talk" communication column for Today's Veterinary Business. Learn more about Dr. Donnelly or contact her at

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