Have you ever gone to your vets and wondered what on earth is being talked about? Many veterinary receptionists often note that clients will come out of a consultation with a vet and be confused; seeking out answers from them or the nursing staff to translate what a vet has said. This is not an ideal situation and the hope is this blog will give you some tools to improve communication with your vet! 

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Terrifyingly, studies show that between 40-80% of information given in medical consultations is forgotten by patients immediately. This coupled with the fact that many patients report that they often don’t understand a lot of what medical professionals say means that there is no doubt that the vast number of studies on improving doctor-patient communication are there with good reason. There are a smaller but rapidly increasing number of similar studies and work going into improving client-veterinarian communication, which align with much of the medical communication research. 

Veterinary and medical work should only be carried out after obtaining “informed consent” from the patient or client. 

Informed consent is defined as: 

‘permission is granted in full knowledge of the possible consequences, typically that which is given by a patient to a doctor for treatment with knowledge of the possible risks and benefits.’

This is a big ask. It means you need to understand what is going to happen, what the potential benefits to your pet are and what the potential risks are so that you can make a decision that it is the right thing for your pet. In veterinary practice, it is also important you understand the potential cost implications.

So how do we get to this point? 

Long Words 

Long medical terminology was devised (often from Latin) to aid medical communication between medical professionals. This helps them to be sure that they are describing and communicating about the same things accurately. However, sometimes it sneaks into vets’ everyday language. 

If a vet uses a word that you don’t understand please stop them and ask them to explain what they mean! More often than not a vet won’t even notice that they have done so and it will be an accident. No vet expects their clients to understand medical terminology but most do care that they are understood by their clients. 

So, if you don’t know a word then stop the consult and ask for clarification!

Ask For It Written Down

For complex consultations in referral centres or for operations in primary and referral practices many vets will provide a written report and/or set of discharge instructions. These usually summarise what has happened in the procedure, after care requirements and common signs that may occur after such a procedure that need monitoring for. 

In every consult in a primary care setting, it would be unusual and often impractical to get a written report from it. However, if you have received a lot of information in a consult then there is absolutely nothing wrong with asking a vet to write a few important points down. Also, if you know that you are going to struggle to retain information because you are stressed or very emotional then bring a pen and paper or use the notes setting in your phone to write notes as the vet talks. Humans want to be understood; vets want you to understand. We all want the best for your pet so ask for a few notes written down or feel free to type/write whilst the vet is talking. 

Make Use of the Whole Team

Sometimes, it is when you leave the consulting room that you have a question you forgot to ask or something that needs a clarification. If this is you, please do ask the receptionists! They have a wealth of knowledge and can often look at the notes and help. They see and hear a lot and they want to help you. If they can’t help then they can ask a Veterinary Nurse. Nurses often have a different way of explaining something that may help clarify it for you. If your question needs to go back to the Vet, that is OK and they can have another go at explaining. It is only with the feedback or question that the communication can improve. You are not being a burden or difficult. But you are advocating for the best for your pet and that is what the Vet Team and you both want. 

Asking for Clarification

Sometimes both vets and clients feel under pressure to get to the bottom of something and make a decision as quickly as possible. This is often unrealistic. Sometimes you have a consultation and you go away and think about the options and have more questions. Ring the vets, book another consultation and have that longer conversation. If you need more time, ask for it. Vets can often book double appointments if needed, for example. Perhaps you don’t even need to bring your pet with you but you do need clarity and time to have the conversation you need, understand your options and get your questions answered. 

Remember Vets Want to Hear What You Want to Know 

People often laugh or seem embarrassed in consultations about having looked something up on the internet. The truth is most vets don’t like being told how to do their job by a client who has read something on the internet. I don’t think anyone likes that – but equally vets do want to help you and know what you are thinking. Asking about something you have been researching or a question you have will help your vet to address your concern, discuss that option with you or explain why they don’t think it is right for your pet. 

It is so helpful to have a client who is engaged in their pet’s health and has ideas and questions. The veterinary landscape has changed massively in the last decade. People’s ethics and values around their pet’s care are wide ranging in both vets and clients. Some people perform treatments and surgeries that other people feel are inappropriate for their pet. Vets meet all these different people so if you have ideas and ask questions that actually helps your vet. Collaborative decision making between a vet and owner when both parties are able to hear one another has been shown to provide the best outcomes for pets. 

Building Relationships 

There is no doubt that communication is often easier in veterinary practice when the client and vet know each other. This allows for the building of trust, respect, empathy and effective communication on both sides. Remember you can almost always ask to see the same vet. They might not be available every day and in every time slot but you can make your preference known. And this allows over time the building of a relationship. If you know your vet well, have built a relationship and way of communicating over time this may help with decision making when it is required. 

Final Thoughts

Nobody says that communication in any walk of life is easy. But remember you are a big part of advocating for your pet’s care so you can ask to see your vet for what you want; you can ask the questions you need and the goal is informed consent. This means that you understand the complexity of the decision you are making. 

When you actually translate medical terms, they can often be quite funny. One of my personal favourites is “idiopathic” which means ‘we don’t know why’. So that often-diagnosed Feline Idiopathic Cystitis the translation for that would be ‘we don’t know why but your cat has bladder inflammation’! The reality is more complex; as evidence is arising for why it occurs and we have lots of literature on what we can do to help but it is a good reminder that sometimes those long words can mean less than you think! 

References and Further Reading 

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