Hopefully you have a veterinarian who you really like. Maybe even love. (But when I say love, I do not mean love, because that is another problem.) The veterinarian-client-patient relationship is built on mutual respect and trust. Sometimes the veterinarian-client-patient relationship becomes a friendship, which is confusing, and not necessary or even advisable. A successful veterinary-client-patient relationship requires boundaries. This may seem counterintuitive, but boundaries really help to maintain mutual respect.
If you are trying to decide what level of contact is appropriate between a client and veterinarian, try to imagine that they are your family doctor (because they are). Veterinarians tend to give more access than physicians, but sometimes this can result in a dysfunctional relationship and then things can get tricky.
If things are not going well, here is how you break up with your veterinarian: first, you find another veterinarian, then you ask to have your records transferred over. It’s that simple. No awkward discussion. No break up text that says, “I’m just not that into you.” No drama. At least there shouldn’t be. Most veterinarians are fine with clients getting second opinions or finding another practice that suits them better. In fact, they will probably help you to set this up before you can even get the question out.
Like most relationships in life, if you don’t feel like things are going well, the feeling is probably mutual. The veterinary-client-patient relationship is not exclusive. It’s ok to see other people. Again, think of it as you would when you see a physician that you do not have confidence in. It is not realistic to think that every health professional you work with will be your cup of tea, and that’s ok. Just move on.
Here is how not to break up with your veterinarian. Yelling at them. Yelling at the person who answers the phone, the veterinary technician or the veterinarian is not ok. This may or not be the intent, but it is amazing how this type of verbal abuse makes its way through a veterinary hospital like a tsunami of shit, leaving no one in its wake unscathed. Moving your way up the food chain to yell at anyone who will listen to you is not ok, from the veterinarian, to the practice owner, or hospital director, or Dean or President of the University. Why stop there, you might as well write a letter to President Obama that you are dissatisfied with the veterinary care that you received.
What is the goal of the yelling and the aggressive letters of complaint? Are you trying to get your veterinarian fired because you don’t like them? Are you trying to get them into trouble? Are you 12? We are a self-regulated profession. If you really feel that your veterinarian has done something worthy of a formal complaint, there are appropriate channels for this. Yelling at them is not one of them.
When did the yelling start to be ok? That is the question. It is a combination of misdirected anger/sadness because of a sick pet, and the feeling that the yelling is going to result in better service. Sometimes the latter is true and that is a tragedy. In every other health professional office waiting room, there is the ubiquitous sign that says, “Abuse will not be tolerated”. Is the lack of signage in a veterinary hospital tacit approval to unload on veterinary professionals?
I should say that this is a very small percentage of the clients that I see, but even if only 5% of the clients are difficult or abusive, it will take up 95% of your time and, perhaps more critical, 95% of your emotional energy. You will take it home with you and it will wear you down. You will lose sleep. You will talk about it with your spouse. You will write a blog about it. You will forget the 95% of your clients that are grateful for your services. You will forget the joy of veterinary medicine.
Once a client becomes abusive, the trust and respect part of the veterinary-client-patient relationship is broken. It becomes difficult to work together in this context and you shouldn’t. As a surgeon, it is disconcerting to say the least to perform a surgery on a pet if I feel that the client does not trust me. If a veterinarian is performing a medical procedure on your pet, you need to trust them. You have to believe that they are doing their best to work in your pet’s best interest. You have to believe that they are excellent at what they do.
This is critical because veterinary medicine and medicine in general are an imperfect art and science. Sometimes things go wrong. Medical errors and adverse events (which are not the same thing, even if the result can look the same) can and do occur. It is rare, but if I have to explain a complication to a client, I need to feel that we are on the same side.
The abusive veterinary-client-patient relationship often goes on much longer than it should. Veterinarians (the Tina in the relationship) are over-achievers and often blame themselves and are reluctant to leave. The abusive client (the Ike in the relationship) doesn’t seem to want to go, even though they are clearly unhappy. And so, if you are a client and you do not trust or respect your veterinarian, I’m begging you, please break up with them. If you want to, let them know why. Try to be respectful and control your emotions.
Please don’t abuse your veterinarian or the staff. We are a sensitive profession and even if you don’t find us particularly attractive, we have all dedicated our lives to helping animals and we are doing our best. If you are a veterinarian and you find yourself in an abusive veterinary-client-patient relationship, try not to take things so personally. Reach for your joy and take it, you deserve it. Have the courage to tell abusive clients, “It’s not me, it’s you.”
Sarah Boston is a veterinary surgical oncologist and public speaker. Sarah is also a cancer survivor and author of the best-selling, hilarious memoir, Lucky Dog: How Being a Veterinarian Saved my Life.
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