Updated April 13, 2021
Last week when I wrote about the shortage of Australian veterinarians, I laid the problems of our industry bare. Poor work conditions, inadequate support and low pay are just a few. They’re leading to what some people see as a crisis for the veterinary profession.
There’s something else contributing to the problem that I did not mention, because it’s tricky to bring up without blaming innocent people. It’s the deterioration of the relationship between vets and pet owners.
The Power Of The Web
The problem as we see it is one of expectations, and it’s the result of a positive change. In only the past few years, vets are noticing that clients are coming to us increasingly well-informed. Something appears to have happened to web search to make it more relevant.
Here’s the issue: your dog or cat has one condition out of a thousand common, and a million rare ones. If you get your search right, you can easily and quickly read more deeply on this specialist subject than your veterinarian will ever have the time to do.
Vets In The 90s
When I graduated in 1994, life was simpler. What we learnt came out of textbooks and journals, which were inaccessible to pet owners. The internet was just a baby learning its first steps.
This was undoubtedly worse for pets. Vets were not as accountable, and standards varied greatly from clinic to clinic. Some I worked in were as good as any today, and some were frankly diabolical.
For any decent vet though, it was great. We were the font of all knowledge, and we had free rein to treat animals the way we felt best. Clients needed and respected us in a way we don’t see much any more. And if we weren’t always perfect, it was rarely noticed.
So imagine you are a new or recent graduate in 2021. You’re still learning, but as long as you get enough time you can do a good job. However, now you’re expected to advise people who come in better informed than you are.
Not only are they able to measure your advice against their pre-reading, but they can also compare the treatment plan to what other people say, plenty of which will be contradictory. And you don’t yet know which bits of all the knowledge are reasonable not to know.
Are these clients patient? Are they understanding? Most are, but certainly not all. And as anyone knows who works with people, it only takes a few to spoil it for everyone.
Where It Leads Us
The problem is that it is almost certainly adding to work dissatisfaction for many veterinarians, especially younger ones. You may know everything there is to know about a disease, but you still need a vet to guide you on its best management. If they keep leaving the profession the way they are now, availability of veterinarians goes down.
So what am I saying here? That we need to be treating each other with a bit more humanity. Owners need to understand that their vets are human beings, not computers.
It’s in the interests of all of us.
With the working conditions that young vets face, the only thing keeping them in the job is their work satisfaction. If we start making a song and dance about every small thing, we are going to lose them, and that ruins it for everybody.
This is not an argument for not holding vets to account for major mistakes. But even here, handling them badly can be career-ending or worse. Most vets care deeply about what they do, especially poor outcomes that they feel responsible for.
Blame or punishment might feel like the natural response. However, you will usually find that inviting an open conversation leads not only to better practical solutions but also genuine healing for everyone.
It’s A Partnership
The truth is that we need each other. As much as vets need your trust, they could also benefit from what you’ve learned. You can help by doing it as respectfully as you can; perhaps by trying to picture yourself in the same position. And there’s always a chance that what you’ve read is only part of the story, or not relevant to Australia.
Personally, I’m quite comfortable not holding as much information in my brain as the sum total of all the internet-connected devices on the planet. I just hope that you are too. Because this situation is here to stay, and it could be yet another nail in the coffin of accessible vet care.
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By Andrew Spanner BVSc(Hons) MVetStud, a vet in Adelaide, Australia. These articles are from a series regularly posted on email and Twitter. Subscribe via email here to never miss a story!