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Bad News, Vet Student

Posted by Cari Wise on March 4, 2016 at 9:00 AM
Cari Wise
Dr. Cari Wise is a 1999 graduate of the University of Missouri, College of Veterinary Medicine. She completed a Masters degree in Education from Argosy University in 2015. Throughout her career, Dr. Wise has utilized her veterinary education in variety of settings including private and corporate small animal practice, shelter medicine, spay/neuter clinics, veterinary relief services, start-up practice ownership, and veterinary technician education.

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We have the best job in the world, at least I think so.  And you probably think so too, since you are a Vet Student happily giving up years of your life for vet school to become a veterinarian.

You are likely envisioning a life of puppies and kittens, foals and calves, kids and lambs, chicks, piglets, and crias.  You get the idea.  But, as you know, not all days will be happy ones in the world of veterinary medicine.

Animal owners will come to you for information and medical care for their critters. Despite a host of preventive care measures that you will recommend, you cannot prevent everything.  There will be Dobermans with DCM, Goldens with Lymphosarcoma, kitties with saddle thrombus, and a host of other diseases you'll learn to expect in some breeds and species.  

And then there will be the unexpected.  Like the parvo puppy that dies hours after you tell the owner it is eating and looking brighter, the oral mass you find during routine dental cleaning, the heartworm test that shows positive.  Bad news, Vet Student.  You get to tell the owner. So how will you do it?

I must tell you honestly that it never gets easier relaying heartbreaking information.  The approach is everything.  Below are ten things to consider when you are faced with sharing unfortunate news.

1.  Do it yourself

Don't delegate this task to a vet tech or other veterinary team member.  The client will appreciate hearing the information from you.  In these moments the positive impact of a trusting doctor-client relationship will go a long way.  

2.  Don't wait

Putting it off isn't going to make it easier and your clients will appreciate knowing sooner rather than later.

3.  In person is best

When at all possible, have these conversations face-to-face, and not over the phone. Even though it will be more difficult for you, you will ultimately serve the client and patient better by sitting down to discuss these difficult situations in person.

4.  Settle your nerves

Take a moment to calm yourself before speaking with your client.  You will be feeling a certain degree of anxiety and sadness as well, and having that under control will help you to relay the information more effectively.

5.  Slow down 

Even though you will want to get it over with, spitting out the news right away isn't a good idea.  Avoid begin rushed.  Sit down with the client in the exam or consult room if at all possible.  Preface the news with a leading statement such as , "Mrs. Smith, I have some unfortunate information regarding Fluffy to share with you".  Wait for a response before proceeding.  Pause often to allow the client to speak.

6.  Make eye contact

By maintaining eye contact, you will pick up on non-verbal clues that will help you pace the conversation.  A client who is distressed may need a few minutes to gather themselves before moving on.  Before doing so, ask the client if they are ready to continue.  Sometimes clients will want to call in support, or schedule a different time to discuss once the shock wears off.  Be sure to provide them with the opportunity to do so.

7.  Watch your language

Avoid medical jargon that might confuse the owner, or muddy the point you are trying to make.   Provide the official diagnosis, but then explain what it means in terms the owner will understand.  A bad situation can be made worse if the client is left confused.  Provide additional resources if possible.

8.  Have a plan

Know what can and can't be done to help the pet.  Have the options ready to discuss. If you are relaying the news of a pet's passing, be prepared to discuss the option of necropsy and wishes for the remains.

9.  Anticipate questions

The client will have questions, so put yourself in their shoes to anticipate those questions and prepare with answers.  The most likely question is probably "why did this happen", and you may or may not be able to answer that.  Be honest and when you don't know, and offer means of finding out, which may include referral or necropsy.

10.  Be realistic

Don't sugar coat the reality of the situation.  Provide realistic information and honest answers to the client's questions.  You should avoid building false hope, but don't become a Debbie downer either if the situation doesn't call for it.  Ultimately you want to relay accurate information so pet owners can make their own informed decision on how to proceed.

Believe it or not, it is the difficult situations that have the ability to bond you and your client with the greatest strength.  You will accompany your pet owners through the complete circle of pet life, from beginning to end,  many times during your careers.  There is no other doctor with this ability, or responsibility.  Good News, future DVM.  You can do this, and do it well, in your role as veterinarian.  

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