Veterinarians and specialists in veterinary care often require a lot of emotional effort to practice compassion in their service, but the benefits outweigh the drawbacks.
Practitioners in veterinary medicine meet with pet owners with dying pets, clients with critically ill cats or dogs who don’t have the money to pay for the surgery, and many other scenarios. These emotionally taxing situations in veterinary care can often be draining and lead to mental burnout, especially without the right mindset and preparation.
While giving a presentation on Compassionomics in Veterinary Medicine at the AVMA Veterinary Leadership Conference in Chicago on January 2022, Dr. Garrett J. Ryerson and Dr. Reese, both veterinarians, said that in vet school, the common advice was, ‘you need to care, but not care too much” – which they didn’t like much.
Dr. Reese continues that taking a small step to relieve the pain of a pet parent and making them feel seen and heard may not fix everything. However, this kind and compassionate interaction with clients in veterinary practice activate a reward pathway in the brain that creates a pleasurable experience for the practitioner and clients.
Dr. Reese also stresses the importance of setting professional boundaries to maintain a good balance.
Why professional boundaries matter in compassionate practice
Compassionate veterinary care should not stop at asking the pet owner, “I’m sorry, or that’s really bad.” But it should continue with, “how can I help, and how can we make this better for you?”
Dr. Reese also continues that while taking a step to show compassion for a pet owner’s suffering, it is important not to internalize their emotions – conveying to the client that they are alone is an act of compassion, she says.
Research from the Canadian Veterinary Journal states that internalizing the painful emotions of pet owners is one of the top reasons for compassion fatigue. In veterinary medicine, compassion fatigue is the cumulative effect of internalizing the suffering and painful emotions of pet owners experiencing a stressful situation. Compassion fatigue is also the practitioner’s inability to spring into action while a client suffers.
Veterinarians are often also exposed to morally conflicting situations, which can lead to moral distress. It can stem from a clash between professional duties, financial problems of the pet owners, and social expectations.
Dr. Reese and Ryerson agree that moral distress and empathy fatigue are the culprits for the burnout common among the veterinarian community, and compassionate care is the best remedy.
What compassionate veterinary care looks like?
Giving time to pet owners to talk about their pets and their distress allows them to have trust in the practitioner and is one way to practice compassionate service. A verbal reflection and confirmation of what the pet parents say by making partnering statements are also part of compassionate veterinary care.
Furthermore, eye contact with the client, smiling, nodding, and mirroring their body language are non-verbal ways practitioners can involve compassionate care in veterinary medicine.
Being open to listening to pet owners and their story is a pathway to negate judgmental attitudes and glean the right information to get the best treatment for the pet. In many cases, veterinarians don’t know about the pets like their parents, and being quick to judge them based on their situations and financial issues can prevent a practitioner from giving the right treatment. Sometimes working closely with the pet owners is an effective way to come up with the best treatment plans for the pets.
Clients with pets often struggle with guilt about spending a lot of money on treatment and euthanasia, among other situations, so practitioners need to remove that guilt. In many cases, pet parents also suffer guilt when they wait too long for a vet’s visit and the tumor or sickness has progressed beyond help.
Dr. Reese recommends introducing the treatment topic openly to clients with all the information and allowing them to process the feelings. Once the pets’ parents have processed their emotions, she suggests talking about the treatment, which is an effective way to calm the client. A calm pet owner can make better decisions about the treatment costs, potential outcomes, and limitations in case of surgery.
Sharing the information with the pet owners, allowing them to process the feelings, and making an informed decision is a great strategy to get the veterinarian out of any emotional distress.
In this regard, Dr. Reese says that veterinarians often have to be like improv artists in order to practice successful, compassionate care.
One minute of compassionate veterinary care and the benefits
The two doctors in their presentation said that it does not take more than a minute to practice compassionate care with pet owners. In their practices, veterinarians and specialists are always pressed for time, making it even harder to build trust.
Practitioners in veterinary medicine that communicate and listen to their clients benefit from decreased chances of malpractice, provider burnout, and malpractice cases.
Furthermore, veterinarians that listen to their clients and command trust also face lower cases of absenteeism and increased revenue. Practitioners in veterinary medicine that communicate with their clients through compassionate care also deal less with angry situations.
In less than a minute, compassionate veterinary care can also help increase client compliance during the practice and complete trust in the practitioner.
Dr. Reese also shares that practicing compassionate care with clients in the animal clinic can also encourage the medical team – from assistants to technicians.
Furthermore, training the staff on the veterinary team and participation in veterinary conferences are just as important so that every member gets on board with practicing compassionate care. Training the veterinary team also helps them feel supported, which can have a cumulative effect on giving compassionate care to clients.
Compassionate vet care, according to Dr. Ryerson and his colleague Dr. Reese, does not cause burnout, but it can be a great antidote when the practitioner is facing empathy fatigue and moral distress. Depending on the specialty, veterinary practice can get exceptionally busy, but setting time aside to talk and listen to distressed clients will ultimately have long-term benefits.