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Saturday, September 20, 2014

You Need Empathy For More Than Animals

Last month I posted a blog in which someone emailed me with their situation, and mentioned that they didn't have enough empathy to be a human nurse, especially doing bedside care.  This person also was very interested in veterinary medicine because they did have great empathy for animals and really wanted to help them.  I'm not trying to belittle that person, but I do want to point out the reality of veterinary medicine, especially in small animal practice.  If you only have empathy for the pet and not the owner, you're not going to be very successful and are going to have a difficult job.
I learned long ago that if you go into veterinary medicine because you don't like people you will be in for a rude awakening.  Unless you are Grizzly Adams you're going to have to deal with people insome capacity (yes, I'm showing my age young'uns click on the link to learn about one of my favorite shows when I was growing up).  Pets don't bring themselves in and don't pay the bills.  It would be nice if there was a rotating window where owners put their pets and credit cards, spun it around, and when we were done we returned the pet and the receipt, all without talking to the person.  But that will never happen, which is probably a good thing.  You will have staff to deal with.  You will have managers or supervisors to work under, some of whom may not be nice.  Or you might be a manager and have to work with people that may not be the sharpest knife in the drawer or have attitude problems.  No matter which way you turn, a vet has to become proficient at handling people.  The better you are at these situations the more successful you are likely to be.
Empathy towards clients is especially important.  You have to honestly feel for them and their situation, as well as deal with their emotions whn something goes wrong.  Just today I had a client who was very upset because her dog's nail had been quicked during a routine nail trim.  To her this was a major issue, even though it was a minor and even routine occurence to us.  Later in the day we had a client come in to have her dog microchipped and she was very scared and worried about how much it might hurt the dog (it didn't).  Every week I have people who are emotional and sad about a bad diagnosis or poor prognosis for their pet, sometimes coming to tears.  I've had clients run the spectrum from screaming anger to uncontrollable weeping.  I'll admit that I'm not always comfortable in these situations (espcially the grief), but I've learned to handle it.
I believe that much of my own personal success as a vet has come because of my ability to empathize with my clients.  I try to keep in mind their emotions and how hard certain things may be on them.  Sometimes I've cried right alongside a client as we were euthanizing their pet.  If someone is angry at us I try to keep in mind their perspective on the issue.  It's important to me that I try to understand someone's financial situation even as I'm trying to tell them why we can't "just try something" and I really need to do all of those tests.  Even if I don't agree with a client I try to show them that I do care and understand.
One of my associate doctors is often uncomfortable and awkward socially.  And she'll tell you this directly, so I'm not ratting anyone out.  She's incredibly brilliant and has a mind like an encyclopedia.  Honestly, I think she's a more knowledgeable, skilled doctor than I am.  I'd be happy to put the lives of any of my pets in her hands.  But because of her personality she doesn't always come across as empathetic or caring.  I know that she cares deeply because I've seen that in her.  But the clients don't always perceive this, and because of that some have had their records marked that they don't want to see her.  She's rarely wrong in her diagnosis and treatment and is extremely thorough.  But because she sometimes struggles with interpersonal skills there are many clients who would much rather see me than her.  This is exactly the kind of situation I'm talking about when I say that you have to have empathy for more than just animals in this job.
There's an old saying that I've heard countless times over the years.
"They don't care how much you know until they know how much you care."
I small animal veterinary medicine this couldn't be more true.