Compassionate Care: Reflecting on 2021

Compassionate Care: Reflecting on 2021

At this time of year, it is common to step back and reflect; about the good, the bad and the lessons learned over the past 12 months. And what a year it has been for us all and for the veterinary profession in particular.

While the entire world is still reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic, the opening and closing of restaurants, the relaxing and tightening of restrictions, the variants- Delta and now Omicron, the veterinary industry has been hit incredibly hard--but in quite a unique way.  

Veterinary medicine is one area of the economy that is booming. I am loathed to even use the word “booming” as the word has a very positive connotation, and I am not sure all of the aspects of the booming veterinary market are indeed positive.

It is wonderful to see more and more Americans taking their pets for medical care-both general and specialty practices are seeing increased demand for their services. For an avid animal lover such as myself, it is heartwarming to see more and more people treating their pets as members of their families.

Yet this massive increase in demand for veterinary care set within the current conditions of the COVID-19 pandemic are also causing some real hardships--ranging from shortages of veterinary staff and veterinarians, excessive wait times for pets and their owners, to elevated stress levels at work for all members of the veterinary team, all the way to high levels of burnout.

These hardships are not unique to the veterinary profession or the current COVID crisis. In fact, the human medical system has been dealing with many of these same issues for years due to changes in the way physicians are compensated by insurance companies. Two physicians from Cooper University Health Care in New Jersey addressed these problems in their fantastic book Compassionomics: The Revolutionary Scientific Evidence that Caring Makes a Difference and their podcast (How Do You Cure a Compassion Crisis? (Ep. 444) - Freakonomics). Their findings are both well researched and are very applicable to the current crisis the veterinary profession is facing.

They found that compassionate care mitigated, alleviated and / or addressed many of the hardships facing both the physicians and the patients. I think their findings are particularly well worth reflecting on at the end of this year for the veterinary profession.

Burnout, as described by Trzeciak and Mazzarelli, “is defined when a few things are happening, called depersonalization, where patients are seen more like as a number, or a diagnosis, one on a list instead of like real people. A sense of decreased effectiveness, just feeling like no matter how hard I work I just don’t really feel like I’m doing a good job. And emotional exhaustion.” And burnout has intensified in both medical and veterinary professionals.

I would dare say we have a burnout crisis in the veterinary field among both veterinarians and veterinary paraprofessionals. And these symptoms have done nothing but increase during the pandemic. The conventional wisdom, according to Trzeciak and Mazzarelli in their book Compassionomics, was “ ‘Don’t get too close to patients.’ Because that could make you prone to getting burned out”. But here, as in many cases, conventional wisdom is wrong. In fact, the authors state: “The preponderance of evidence shows that there is an inverse association between compassion and burnout. So, more compassion, lower burnout; lower compassion, higher burnout. Healthcare providers who have lower compassion for patients are more predisposed to getting burned out under the same amount of stress. So, we believe that having a fulfilling doctor-patient relationship, or a nurse-patient relationship, gives you that fulfilling part of medicine, and if you don’t have that, then it’s just one stress after another.”

Not only does compassion decrease burnout, it also improves the doctor-patient relationship--in the veterinarians' case, the doctor-client relationship--and it improves the financial health of the hospital, by both increasing revenue and decreasing costs according to research by Trzeciak and Mazzarelli.

One frequent criticism of increasing the amount of compassion you deliver in a medical setting is that it would take more time---opening the door to a ton more questions, thereby causing the visit to take much longer. But here again, the conventional wisdom is wrong. In multiple studies, when doctors displayed compassion during the visit, the total length of time for that visit was no longer than visits with doctors that did not display compassion.

So, after reflecting about this year, my recommendation for the veterinary profession is to increase the amount of compassion you deliver in your practice. This will not only help you alleviate some of the symptoms of burnout, but it will also help your practice both financially and with increased client satisfaction.

I can tell you from personal experience that when I was counseled by my husband that if I truly wanted to help the pets, my patients, I had to develop a relationship with the owner, as they were ultimately the decision makers for the pet. Treating these owners with compassion, rather than treating them as ‘the opposition’, completely changed my life. I more fully enjoyed going to work every day, the clients had a much better experience and the pets ultimately got better care. The financial health of the practice also improved.

While empathy and compassion are not the panacea for all of our current troubles, they can significantly help with many of the ills facing the veterinary profession now and in the future.

Dr. Gerry Post

Dr. Gerry Post has been practicing veterinary medicine for over 25 years specializing in veterinary oncology. He currently serves as Chief Veterinary Officer at the One Health Company.

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