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Why is Communication Important in Veterinary Practice?

Over the past 18 months, the veterinary profession has been focused on providing the best service possible for clients and patients under difficult and trying conditions. Delivering care during these challenging times has placed more focus than ever on practioners’ ‘non-technical’ skills and competencies. These include communication, situational awareness, leadership, teamwork and time management – they are all things you need in addition to your clinical knowledge, experience and expertise to get the job done.

Non-technical skills are often referred to as soft skills but are often one of the hardest aspects of your work to master. Read this blog to learn their importance in a clinical setting, and how they play an integral and essential component within an effective, functioning practice team.

  • What are non-technical skills?
  • Why are they important?
  • Communication in veterinary practice
  • Shared decision making
  • Where does communication fit in clinical competence?
  • How can you improve your skills?

What are non-technical skills?

‘Non-technical’ or ’non-clinical skills’ include how you interact with colleagues and clients, how you solve problems, and how you manage your time and workload. They incorporate many areas of practice life, including communication, self-motivation, leadership, teamwork, problem solving, and the ability to work under pressure and resolve conflict.

Why are they important?

The veterinary profession is a people profession. It can be easy to focus on your hard-earned clinical knowledge and skills and forget that your ability to connect and relate with the people around you, clients and team members alike, is at the heart of your ability to deliver great care. When you use your cognitive, social and interpersonal skills to complement your technical skills, you achieve the best possible outcomes for all involved:

  • Good for pets: Safe, high-quality outcomes for patients
  • Good for clients: improved client experience, part of the team getting best possible outcome for patients
  • Good for you: improved wellbeing and joy at work, less risk of adverse events
  • Good for practice: improved team morale and communication, effective, adaptable organisations

Communication in veterinary practice

‘The practice of excellent veterinary medicine is inextricably linked with skilled communication; you cannot have one without the other’ (Adams et al 20171). This is true no matter what area of veterinary medicine you work in. We know, however, that communicating well with clients and with team members can be challenging.

Think about a day in practice. How many different people do you communicate with? How are you communicating? Verbally? Non-verbally? Written communication? The truth is we are communicating all the time. How often do you stop and reflect on how well this is working for you and those around you? Do you ever wonder if a situation might have gone differently if you’d taken a different approach?

However experienced you are, reflecting upon and improving our communication skills is something we can all do. Veterinary communication training will provide you with the communication skills, tools and techniques to more confidently navigate many challenging situations in practice. Situations such as managing anger, breaking bad news, responding to ethical dilemmas, dealing with financial issues and resolving conflict are all great opportunities where key communication skills can help you out. Some of the key communication skills you need to apply in veterinary practice include:

  • Discovering and responding to the other person’s feelings
  • Effective use of empathy
  • Recognising and responding to verbal and no verbal cues
  • Open questioning techniques 
  • Active listening
  • Ensuring the other person feels heard using reflections, acknowledgement, and summaries
  • Closing the communication loop – checking the other person has understood

Shared decision making

Effective communication helps you to actively involve clients in a shared or collaborative decision making process. This can reduce complaints, increase vet and client satisfaction and improve outcomes for patients. Remember, whilst you may want a diagnosis, owners may be more focused on a plan. That plan needs to address what matters to them and what they can achieve in the context of their lives with this animal.

Active listening techniques, help you to ascertain the client’s perspective – what they already know, what is concerning them most, what they expect and hope for from the treatment plan. Eliciting this understanding from your clients will enable you to structure the way you impart information and advice as the veterinary professional. It is important to appreciate that some clients will want to know all there is about their pet’s condition, whereas others will want to know the bare minimum. 

*TOP TIP! Some people are better at absorbing information through the spoken word, some through the written word, and others through pictures and anatomical models. It is best to have all available so you can tailor to each client. 

When imparting information, it is useful to provide it in small, bite-sized pieces that the client can take in and digest, although the size of those chunks will depend on the level of understanding of the client. This process is called ‘chunking and checking’. 

Finally, what is the best way of finding out whether a client has taken in the information or not? Repeating and summarising information, and then asking the client to restate in their own words what they have understood will give you an early insight into what the client understands or what you have not explained well enough. It also allows you to clarify any misunderstanding or repeat anything that has been missed.

Check out our veterinary communication training delivered by VDS Training for more top tips like these!

Where does communication fit in clinical competence?

Communication is a core clinical skill and an essential component of clinical competence; it is not an optional extra but should form part of your knowledge base as a veterinary professional. The physical examination, other procedural skills and clinical reasoning all turn theory into practise – how we communicate is just as important as what we say.

How can you improve your skills?

Interested in developing your communication skills in veterinary practice? Our VDS Training team delivers veterinary communication training for all members of the veterinary practice team, from nurses and receptionists to practice managers, assistants and experienced practitioners. VDS Training Consultant Elly Russell is passionate about supporting vet teams develop the communication practices they need to achieve not only high workplace performance, but also fulfilling, happy careers.

For further information on veterinary communication training and support on how to develop, refine and strengthen your non-clinical skills, and the tools and techniques to use back in practice, visit www.vds-training.co.uk 

Note 1: Adams CL, Kurtz SM. Skills for communicating in veterinary medicine. Oxford: Otmoor Publishing, 2017

About VDS Training
VDS Training are passionate about developing all members of the veterinary team, to help you overcome the personal and professional challenges you face on a daily basis, and to build practical skills and techniques to make a real difference to you and your life.