One of the most valuable learning experiences in vet school comes from watching experienced clinicians talk with clients. Every veterinarian is different, in terms of what details about a disease they think are important enough to explain to an owner, or how they describe different treatment options. But veterinarian-client communication encompasses more than just verbal content—how the words are expressed is just as important, if not more important. Body language, tone, pacing, pauses, and frequent check-ins to gauge understanding are crucial to building trust and efficiently deciding on a course of action.
For example, one of my large animal patients was a gorgeous Thoroughbred stallion who was 3 months into rehabilitation of a front limb suspensory ligament injury when he fell in his stall and sustained a left hindlimb injury. On physical exam, there was no inflammation or pain along his limb to direct us to the source of injury, so the owners and clinicians decided on a bone scan. Injured areas of bone absorb more of the injected radioactive isotope, so clinicians can easily pinpoint the affected area. Luckily for me, I was invited to listen as the clinician went over the bone scan results with the owner. I was a little in awe at how calmly and thoroughly the veterinarian went through all the bone scan views, even the images that were normal. When he got to the abnormal images, he whipped out an equine femur (borrowed from the ultrasound department) and took the time to give the owner a crash course in femur anatomy, pointing out how the bone scan images corresponded with landmarks like the femoral head, the greater trochanter, and the lesser trochanter. As it turned out, the stallion’s bone scan showed a triangle of increased isotope uptake in the region of the 3rd trochanter, a bony prominence where the gluteal muscles attach. Although subsequent radiographs and ultrasound of the area couldn’t find proof of a 3rd trochanter fracture, that’s not too surprising when you think of all the muscles in this area and how they might confound getting a clear picture.
So now the stallion is on strict stall rest, attached to crossties to prevent him from lying down, as his earlier attempts to stand were painful and led to him getting banged up a bit. He’s also getting plenty of carrots (as rewards for doing neck stretches) and lots of love from the students and his owner. I hope in the future that I can be as patient and thorough as the stallion’s clinician because I really felt like his approach was caring, professional, and effective.