It often feels like veterinary professionals and pet owners speak different languages, which can make meaningful communication difficult. How can the veterinary healthcare team present complex, medical information in a way that resonates with owners and motivates them to comply with the doctor’s suggestions?
Telling clients that their beloved pet has a serious condition is difficult. Clients often fail to understand the complexities of the disease in their pet, and many struggle to comply with recommended treatment and follow ups. The clients are often emotional and may be confused or even in denial about the problem.
Veterinary practitioners need to recognize that people have different learning styles, and then provide information in a form or technique that supports those styles.
Scientists have developed numerous models to understand the different ways that people learn best. One popular theory, the VARK model, was developed in 1987 by Neil Fleming in New Zealand. Fleming identified four primary types of learners: visual, auditory, reading/writing, and kinesthetic.
• Visual learners comprehend best when shown an image, model or graphic that demonstrates the problem or treatment. Visual learners may take photos or videos on smartphones, or they may draw a picture to understand a concept.
• Auditory learners benefit the most from a lecture or discussion, and they will often recite information back to the presenter as a way of cementing it into their mind. An estimated 25% of the population are auditory learners. Therefore, if you use words alone, you may not be communicating effectively with 75% of your audience.
• Reading/writing learners respond best to written information, such as handouts, leaflets or articles on your website.
• Kinesthetic learners are hands-on, experiential learners who need to perform tasks before they understand them. Use interactive lessons when showing clients how to administer medications.
If you want to educate different people, you need to know how to engage each of the four different learning styles and have a variety of methods, modes and available materials.
A word of caution, though. Veterinary practitioners will often approach client education methods in the style that they prefer, even if it not the most effective method or the client’s preference. You must be flexible and adapt your communication to the different learning styles of your clients.
You should also be aware that the volume of information may overwhelm an already stressed client and dramatically reduce the amount of information retained. Try to use common words and phrases instead of complex medical terms and acronyms.
Try the following tips to improve communication with your clients:
• Practice explaining procedures in common terms. Students in human medical fields are often encouraged to practice explaining a medical procedure, such a colonoscopy, to a family member to see if they understand.
• Speak slowly and communicate only key points. Most clients will not remember more than three messages.
• Read handouts with the client, highlight and circle important parts, and encourage the client to ask questions.
• Ask clients to repeat instructions back to you. Remember that when you ask clients: “Do you understand?” they may be embarrassed to admit that they do not. Ask clients to put the information in their own words. If necessary, repeat your instruction using less technical terminology. It is important that you don’t embarrass the client. For example, you could say something like: “Mr. Jones, I want to make sure I explained things clearly. I would like to check how clear I was by having you tell me how you are going to give the pills to Fluffy.”
• Use analogies that are easily understood and identified by the client. For example, when you are explaining congestive heart failure to a client, you may use the analogy of the heart to a mechanical pump.
• Draw a picture or use a clinical atlas if clients need to visualize what you are explaining.
• Create written materials using simple words, short sentences in bulleted format and lots of white space. Emphasize what the client should do and avoid unnecessary information.
It is important to explain the problem and the treatment to the owner in a way that is easy to understand.
Using the above tips can help you enhance client compliance, which is fundamental in improving patient care and client satisfaction.