Five Ways To Communicate Empathy In Vet Medicine - Without Burning Out
Does practicing empathy really make THAT much of a difference to your work as a veterinary professional?
Absolutely- and in more ways than one.
In human medicine, expressions of empathy can seriously improve a number of outcomes. Clinicians who display greater levels of empathy towards clients tend to experience higher levels of diagnostic accuracy, treatment adherence, and satisfaction overall¹ ².
The same can be said for veterinary professionals.
Veterinary caregivers who display more empathetic traits experience higher levels of both satisfaction and compliance from their clients.
But the sad reality is that many struggle to do so, given their limited time and resources (both physical and emotional).
Thankfully, there are a number of simple techniques that veterinary professionals can use to better convey empathy to their clients- without exhausting themselves emotionally.
How To Convey More Empathy In Veterinary Medicine
1. Stay Objective
When it comes to empathy, there are a number of common pitfalls professionals fall into.
For one, many veterinary caregivers try to relate to their clients by inadvertently inserting themselves into the problem. For instance, recounting instances when similar situations happened to them.
The problem with this is that they can inadvertently insert themselves into the client’s painful situation. Losing objectivity, and becoming over-involved in the client’s dilemma.
This isn’t good for the client nor the clinician, who may overly emotionally invest themselves in the case. Doing so places the clinician at higher risk of compassion fatigue.
2. Empathize, Don’t Reassure
Reassurance and empathy are not the same things.
Empathy is the ability to recognize another person’s feelings and share those feelings, whereas reassurance is the act of removing someone’s doubts and fears.
Although a little bit of reassurance can’t hurt (as long as it is not misleading), if you’re not actively listening to your client’s concerns, it can come across as dismissive- and not empathetic at all.
This is likely not the intent, but it’s key to avoid sounding as though you are not taking a client’s concerns seriously if you want to build rapport.
3. Convey Both Verbal And Physical Empathy
A lot of empathy cues are non-verbal.
Eye contact, facial expression, and posture can all convey subliminal messages towards your clients.
For instance, if you’re completing an examination while talking to the client and taking a history, though you are trying to be efficient, to the client you may appear distracted and disinterested.
If you can, try to converse with your client without physical objects (like the exam room table) in the way. Keep your body language open, and maintain frequent eye contact throughout the consultation.
Validate their concerns while actively listening. Empathy statements, such as:
‘It sounds like you might be feeling guilty about what happened.’
‘I can see that you feel bad about losing your grip on the leash.’
Can be great for communicating empathy, as they demonstrate that you have been intently listening to their concerns.
4. Ask The Right Questions
To avoid preemptively assuming what a client’s concerns are, try to stick to open-ended questions during initial examinations.
‘When did Suzy stop taking her medication?’
‘How has Suzy been acting recently?’
‘If possible, avoid ‘why’ questions, like:
‘Why didn’t you get Suzy vaccinated?’ as they can feel very judgemental and therefore not empathetic.
A better option would be to ask:
‘What made you decide against vaccinating Suzy this year?’ as it is less forward and more explorative.
5. Hear The Client Out
When conversing with a client, try to let them express themselves in full before jumping into problem-solving clinical mode.
This means abstaining from interruptions, sudden changes in topic, or outright dismissing them.
Even if you don’t agree with your client, it’s important they feel like they’ve said everything they need to before you start making assessments.
Cutting off the client too early can also result in premature assessments, which is detrimental to both the client and the patient ³ ⁴.
Takeaway Points For Being More Empathetic
When you have to deal with case-upon-case every day, it can be really hard to muster up the energy to be wholly present with your client.
But practicing empathy in veterinary medicine, in a controlled and healthy manner is really important if you want to help your client and patient.
Compassion fatigue is also a real problem for a lot of veterinary professionals, so being able to convey empathy (without actually taking on an emotional toll), is fundamental for a sustainable career in this profession.
If you enjoyed this article on empathy in veterinary medicine, check out this blog on burnout 'The Five Stages Of Burnout: Spot The Signs'.
1- ‘Veterinarian satisfaction with companion animal visits – PubMed.’ 1 Apr. 2012, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22443436/. Accessed 18 Oct. 2021.
2- ‘Companion animal veterinarians’ use of clinical communication skills.’ https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23980830/. Accessed 18 Oct. 2021.
3- ‘(PDF) Communicating Empathy in Veterinary Practice – ResearchGate.’ 23 Apr. 2017, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/316410252_Communicating_Empathy_in_Veterinary_Practice. Accessed 4 Oct. 2021.
4- ‘Communication is a clinical skill (part 3) – Vet Focus.’ 5 Mar. 2020, https://vetfocus.royalcanin.com/en/practice-management/communication-is-a-clinical-skill-part-3. Accessed 4 Oct. 2021.