‘Non-clinical client communication skills’ is at 11.45 am, ‘Won’t pay, can’t pay’ is at 1 pm and ‘Complaint handling: I want to make a complaint, what next?’ is at 2:15 pm.
In this Q&A, Elly discusses her route into the veterinary profession, her communications training position with the VDS, the importance of effective communication with both clients and colleagues, plus what we can expect from her three sessions at this year’s event.
What’s your veterinary background?
I spent a year doing an internship at London Vet School when I first qualified from Cambridge and then worked in a variety of small animal practices and hospitals. I became interested in surgery and did a surgery certificate. I really loved challenging myself with the surgery, but what I got the most joy from was helping clients and knowing that how I’d been with them in a tough situation made it easier for them. Yes, helping the animal is what motivates us, but we have owners to take care of and a fundamental thing that makes us happy is that human connection. So that good inter-personal relationship isn’t only good for the client, it brings us more happiness when we know we are making a difference.
How did things develop from there?
Studying for my certificate opened up questions for me about the non-clinical parts of our job. I became interested in all the elements beyond our clinical skills, which I think are equally, if not more, important to how we do our job. I started a master’s research degree which has become a PhD, supported by the VDS. It’s exploring communication, particularly in relation to patient safety. I do that while working alongside the VDS training team.
When did you step away from clinical practice?
That was just in 2020—I’d only been doing some weekend emergency work latterly. There are things I miss, like having cuddles with animals, talking to clients and being part of a team. But I really enjoy what I do now, being able to connect with people across the profession and hopefully help make life a little bit easier for everyone within a veterinary team.
"Yes helping the animal is what motivates us, but we have owners to take care of too, and that human connection is a fundamental thing that makes us happy."
What do you do with the VDS?
I head up our communication training delivery and we’re focused on all aspects of communication within practice. That includes clinical communication in the consulting room but also supporting the whole vet team. So that’s not only communication with clients but also with each other. How we are with one another in teams has an enormous impact on the safety and quality of the care we deliver and also our experience of the workplace. Our interaction with each other affects how much we enjoy our work and how we cope with the pressures we face.
Is that even more important given all the difficulties we’ve faced in the past couple of years?
I think so. There have been so many challenges to communication, from wearing masks to having to do kerbside consulting. The pressures and stress on teams is the greatest I can remember, but it has also brought teams closer. With everyone having to muck in, people gained a better understanding of other people’s roles. I think that is really positive in a situation that is obviously very far from ideal. And choosing what you talk about, focusing on something good, can have a big impact on the wellbeing of the team.
What will you be talking about in your first session, ‘Non-clinical communication skills’?
It’s tempting to think the most important thing is what happens in the consulting room between the vet and the client, or on the phone if it’s a kerbside consultation. But while we all only see the little bit of the job that’s ours, clients see the whole thing from the first point of contact right through.
We’re often not very good at stepping out of our own little part of the jigsaw and seeing the whole picture. If we can do that though, we can see how every little bit of communication with clients can have a big impact. I want every member of the practice team to think about their communication, from reception and ACAs to nurses and vets, and not just with the client but with each other too. Always try and consider how whatever is said will look from a client’s perspective. I think front-of-house team members will really benefit from taking part.
And what about ‘Won’t pay, can’t pay?’
I’ll be talking about why money appears to be at the centre of so many of our communication challenges. We hear from teams all the time that most issues and complaints are about money and often that’s because of a mismatch of expectations. What the client expects for the money they are paying isn’t what happens, so if we can be more proactive in setting those expectations we are more likely to be able to meet them.
There seems to be a reluctance to talk about money and I want to dig into why that is the case. When and how do you talk about it? Sometimes we can feel guilty if the cost of treatment may be a challenge for clients. We must remember that the money is the client’s responsibility. It’s our responsibility to support them, but without feeling guilty as our services are great and we deserve to be paid for them.
"The pressures and stress on teams is the greatest I can remember, but it has also brought teams closer. With everyone having to muck in, people have gained a better understanding of other people’s roles."
Finally, ‘Complaint handling: I want to make a complaint, what next?’
It’s very easy, particularly when we work so hard and care so much, to view it as a personal attack when we receive a complaint. I want to discuss trying to move away from that and try to look at complaints as feedback, someone else’s experience of how care has been delivered. What does this client want from this complaint?
When we feel under attack, we tend to become defensive and offer up explanations about what happened and that can come across as a justification. We can rush in with solutions rather than letting the client know we have heard everything they’ve said. Sometimes knowing they’ve been listened to is all a client wants and that can go a long way towards resolving the situation. Rather than go into fight or flight mode, understanding that the client is often upset with the situation, not you, can help deescalate things.