Kate Boatright·4 January 2022
As part of our veterinary oath, we swear to "use (our) scientific knowledge and skills for the benefit of society through the protection of animal health and welfare (and) the prevention and relief of animal suffering." To fulfill this duty, we must become strong patient advocates. In a field where our patients cannot speak for themselves, we are responsible for educating pet owners and making recommendations that prioritize patient health and comfort.
It can be easy to think about how we can advocate for our patients in end of life situations or cases where financial constraints affect the treatment plan (the “relief of suffering” side of the equation). But advocacy goes beyond these situations. It must include education of prevention of suffering through preventive care but also through client education around quality of life issues that may be harder for pet owners to recognize.
We must change the way we look at advocacy to be successful. The most effective advocacy requires the whole veterinary team to actively engage in client education throughout the life of the patient. Additionally, patient advocacy does not have to be limited to the few minutes of contact each year during annual visits to be effective. Growing technology offers opportunities for regular touch points with clients.
Puppy and Kitten Visits The first puppy or kitten visit is a perfect time to set the stage for life-long advocacy. There is, of course, a lot to cover, so dividing up discussions of vaccine protocols, spay/neuter timing, and parasite prevention plans among multiple early visits is important. Giving too much information at a time can be overwhelming to the pet owner and decrease the impact.
Consider developing a patient education plan that the entire staff can participate in. This plan should include a focus area for each puppy/kitten visit and a role for every team member. For example, the first visit could focus on vaccinations and training. The client service representative can start by introducing the client to these concepts when they confirm the appointment and again at check-in. The room technician can give a bit more detail about vaccination schedules and answer basic training and socialization questions. This allows the veterinarian to maximize their time with the patient by following up on the conversations that were started by other staff members. Finally, at the conclusion of the visit, the pet owner can receive take-home material with more information including a vaccine booklet, tips for socialization, and recommended training classes. Owners can also be advised of plans to discuss other topics at future appointments, though this should not prevent the team from answering general questions.
One conversation that should be held with new pet owners early on is about pet insurance. Many pet owners aren't familiar with pet insurance and the financial safety net it can provide. Currently, less than 3% of pet owners have pet insurance policies in the USA. A recent study on the impact of health insurance on spending habits of dog owners in the United States found that those with pet insurance visit the veterinarian more often and spend more annually at the veterinary hospital than those without.1 Promoting pet insurance in your clinic offers opportunities to improve the health of your patients and the bottom line of your clinic.
Annual Visits Preventive care appointments are a great time to focus on advocating for our patients. Promoting routine preventive care is a core part of maximizing patient health and quality of life for as long as possible. All team members should be trained on the clinic’s recommended protocols so that they can answer general client questions. Veterinarians can provide additional details during the appointment.
Beyond the standard preventive care conversations, evaluation of mobility, potential sources of pain, dental health, weight, and nutrition should be included in annual visits. Many owners are not aware of subtle signs of pain, but veterinary teams can improve awareness by having these conversations early in the pet’s life. This will allow owners to be more aware and proactive on bringing their pets to the clinic for evaluation.
There are many tools available to improve patient advocacy through client education. First and foremost, all staff—from client service representatives to technicians to veterinarians—should be given opportunities for communication training. This can be accomplished during regular staff meetings and by encouraging all staff to attend continuing education meetings to enhance their skills. Patient advocacy cannot be limited to the veterinarians in the practice, so equipping our team members with the tools they need to properly advocate for patients through client education is a must.
Additionally, many clinics have successful client education programs through their online presence. This may include an educational blog on the clinic website or an active social media presence. No matter what your platform for client education is, make sure that your clients know where they can find trusted information about their pet’s health.
Finally, consider adding an app to your practice’s communication toolkit. An app like PetsApp offers clients the opportunity to message the clinic team with questions and keeps the lines of communication open. It allows the veterinary clinic and their messaging to remain in front of the client and gives more opportunities for interaction between clinic staff and pet owners, especially in an age where phone communication is becoming increasingly less preferred. Furthermore, targeted marketing plans can be used to reach out to pet owners with specific information that is relevant to their pet’s health, allowing you to advocate for the medicine that is best for your patients even when they aren’t in your office.
References: Williams A, Williams B, Hansen CR, Coble KH. The Impact of pet health insurance on dog owners' spending for veterinary services. Animals (Basel). 2020;10(7):1162. doi: 10.3390/ani10071162