Photo: Erica Larson, News Editor

Excellent communication is always critical when practicing veterinary medicine, but it is imperative and can be particularly challenging in emergencies. Amy L. Grice, VMD, managing partner at Rhinebeck Equine LLP, described effective ways of communicating with clients in such scenarios, when emotions tend to run high, at the 2012 American Association of Equine Practitioners' (AAEP) Convention, held Dec. 1-5 in Anaheim, Calif.

During an emergency, said Grice, "clients are thrown off balance, scared. They don't know what to expect." Risk runs high in equine emergencies--to the patient, to personnel, and to the client's financial and emotional well-being. She said the veterinarian needs to remain calm, assess the situation, take charge, and show leadership.

Grice pointed out that in a 2005 study of communication within a human pediatrics hospital, assigning a coordinator to listen to the families of hospitalized children and answer their questions produced a positive effect on the families' perceptions of the care, even when questions that were answered had nothing to do with the medical condition. In another study from the human field, researchers demonstrated a significant difference in the behaviors of physicians with no malpractice claims compared those with claims filed against them. The practitioners without malpractice claims educated patients, built rapport, and spent an average of 3.3 minutes longer with their patients during routine visits.

For veterinarians who feel uncertain about their communications skills or "emotional intelligence," the news is good, said Grice. Unlike intellect, which is innate, communication skills can be developed over a lifetime. Grice suggested several techniques for improving communication, including:

  • Effective listening;
  • Open-ended queries;
  • Attention to nonverbal communication; and
  • Adjusting one's communication style to suit the preferences of the listener rather than oneself.

Nonverbal communication comprises 60-90% of our communications. If nonverbal signals don't match the speaker's words, this dichotomy can generate tension, mistrust, and confusion. For instance, a trembling voice, lack of eye contact, and a timid stance completely undermine a confident statement.

Properly used nonverbal cues can accentuate communication, better enabling the veterinarian to act as an advocate for the horse. For instance, a veterinarian's confident, relaxed demeanor can help an indecisive or frightened client make critical decisions impacting his or her horse's well-being, such as whether to proceed with surgery or even euthanasia. But to use nonverbal signals appropriately, the practitioner must be aware of how his or her own emotions affect his or her responses, verbal and nonverbal.

Grice suggested that both listening and communication skills can be honed by role-playing some of the scenarios that might occur in the veterinary setting. Although she acknowledged it could feel awkward at first, rehearsing some of the common interactions with distressed clients can benefit staff, veterinarians, clients, and, ultimately, patients.