Veterinary medicine and the art of communication

When I graduated from Washington State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, I believed I’d finally arrived. I’d paid my dues, survived the hard part and now, I could finally enjoy the fruits of my labors with big paychecks, success, and happiness. I soon found out I was wrong.

Brett Bingham (’00, DVM)

Dr. Brett Bingham is passionate about communication. Owner/partner of Intermountain Pet Hospital, a four-hospital practice in Idaho, Dr. Bingham experienced challenges early in his career which led to a belief that skilled communication is essential to veterinary medicine success.

In this article, Bingham discusses the art of veterinary communication.

What experiences fostered your commitment to communication excellence?

My first veterinary job was in a small town in Idaho where cows outnumber people five to one. One of my first cases launched my journey into communications.

A client arrived with his itchy puppy. I struggled to formulate and articulate a good diagnosis and treatment plan. I fumbled my way through the exam and sent the client home with his puppy and asked him to come back if the itching became worse.

A few weeks later, the client returned with the puppy whose itching was significantly worse. I did a skin scraping that showed Demodex and was elated to diagnose my first Demodex case. I proudly went back to the exam room to share the great news.

That sense of excitement and accomplishment lasted only a split second. The owner immediately berated me for missing the diagnosis the first time around. He said I was responsible for the suffering his puppy had endured between visits and insisted I pay for the treatments because of the pain I’d caused his puppy.

I went from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows within a few seconds and believed my career in this small town would be over before it had even begun. At that moment, I had real doubts about my future. Was this going to happen every day and was I going to be miserable for the rest of my career? If this client publicly defames me, am I going to be able to make enough money to pay my student loans and put food on the table for my family?

These were my fears, and I wondered how I could have avoided this situation. Though this was an extreme case, and most clients don’t get so upset, he wasn’t the only difficult owner I’ve dealt with. Over the years, I’ve challenged myself to learn how I can prevent these circumstances through skillful communication. With good communication techniques, this painful story would never have happened.

Why do you believe communication is key to successful veterinary practice?

There’s a misnomer about veterinary medicine. Many believe we’re in the animal business. Not so. Veterinarians are in the people business. We serve people and do this by caring for their animals. We have to connect with people first, so they’ll trust us to work with their animals.

When I graduated from veterinary school, I wasn’t prepared to work with people. After years of investing time, money, sacrifice, and tears, I felt I had so much to offer. Yet, I struggled to connect with people. I decided to study and develop my communication skills through reading and continuing education. Once I began to apply these skills, I felt like my potential had been unlocked. I could own the exam room by communicating all my veterinary knowledge to help patients and clients.

Did your experiences lead you to develop the course, Veterinary Communication & Coaching Academy (VCC.Academy)?

Yes. I’ve spent the last 21 years creating the VCC.Academy curriculum to help prevent scenarios like the itchy puppy experience I had.

Through exceptional communication, veterinarians create bonds with clients that keep them happy and informed. You also become more efficient and productive in the process. Studies show that veterinarians’ efficacy and happiness are as rooted in their communication abilities as in their clinical and surgical knowledge. These skills are vital to happiness at work and building strong relationships with clients and staff.

How does this happen in your own practice?

During monthly VCC.Academy training sessions, our veterinary team advances their client communication skills by watching exam room videos, practicing, and sharing scripts.

In 2023, the VCC.Academy courses will be available on a subscription-based platform. Some of the modules include “The Greeting Process,” “The Medical Interview,” “Non-Verbal Communication,” “How to Share Bad News,” and “Own the Exam Room.” VCC.Academy will also offer one-on-one coaching and whole hospital video coaching.

My vision is that all veterinarians are proficient and competent in communications, so they can use their veterinary talents and knowledge to their full potential. This training needs to be a part of every veterinarian’s culture. When we all adopt this sentiment, it will be revolutionary for our profession.