As a veterinary professional, you’re used to interacting with a wide variety of clients.
Some clients prefer to take a hands-off approach to their pet’s care. They have little interest in understanding the details of veterinary medicine, typically happy just to bring the pet in for an annual check-up and take home enough parasite prevention to get them through the next year.
At the other end of the spectrum, some pet owners are very proactive and engaged in their pet’s care. They want to understand your recommendations and the motives behind them, with a focus on preventing disease and addressing issues as soon as they arise.
While there are certainly pros and cons to either extreme, it’s fair to say most of us would prefer to work with engaged, empowered clients. As long as they understand the rationale behind your recommendations, these clients are more often willing to do what is best for their pet.
Even if an empowered client experiences financial limitations, they are more likely to be open and honest about these limitations and work with you to seek the best possible solution for their pet.
In order to create more of these ideal clients, we need to create ways to empower pet parents. Empowering pet parents allows them to transition from a reactionary approach to pet care to proactive preventative care.
So, how can you empower the pet parents in your practice?
The first step to client empowerment is education.
Clients want to be treated as a valued partner in their pet’s care. This partnership will be more productive if your client has access to accurate information that can expand their knowledge base. Unless you want pet parents trusting Dr. Google or a breeder, you must provide them with trusted, reliable information that they can use.
As your clients become more educated about veterinary care, and their pet in particular, they will be empowered to partner with you in pursuing the best possible care for their pet.
Use client education handouts to your advantage
Studies conducted in human medicine suggest that patients immediately forget 40-80% of what their healthcare provider tells them in the exam room. There’s no reason to suspect that veterinary medicine is any different. Therefore, it’s important to have written documentation to support the verbal education that you provide in the exam room.
When you diagnose a pet with a cruciate tear or diabetes, for example, send the pet parent home with written materials that describe the diagnosis and recommended treatment options. This information will reinforce your verbal conversation, and can help clients formulate better follow-up questions.
Educational materials are not solely for sick visits; they should also play a role in wellness visits. In many practices, clients are sent home from their initial puppy or kitten visit with some sort of puppy/kitten kit. These kits often contain free samples of parasite preventatives and information on aspects of preventative care.
While pharmaceutical brochures certainly play a role in puppy/kitten kits, think outside the box to make your kits more educational and informative. Written information on feeding, training, preventative care, and other topics should be sent home with new puppy and kitten owners to help familiarize them with their new pet’s needs.
Make the most of your social media accounts
Most veterinary practices have a social media presence, but not all practices use those accounts intentionally. While it’s certainly appropriate to share information, such as adoptable pet listings and changes in your practice policies, social media can also be an invaluable way to educate your clients.
Educational social media content can take on a variety of forms. If you want to highlight canine heartworm disease, for example, a heartworm photo accompanied by a brief written post can be very effective.
Veterinary drug manufacturers often create detailed infographics that can also be used to share information in a more visually appealing way.
If you really want to grab your client’s attention, though, consider providing case-based content from within your hospital. Maybe you just performed an especially rewarding dental cleaning, or removed an interesting foreign body from a pet’s abdomen. Ask the client for permission to post their pet’s case on your hospital’s social media accounts (without identifying the pet or owner, of course).
Real-life cases can be both entertaining and informative, and you can use a case-based approach to highlight specific procedures, diagnostic tests, or equipment that you want your clients to understand.
Provide online access to your patient medical records
As clients become more educated, and spend more time thinking about their pet’s health, they are more likely to want access to their pet’s medical records. Just as your physician’s office may offer a patient portal, pet portals and online health apps provide ways for clients to remain up-to-date on information regarding their pet’s health. This kind of transparency empowers your clients to be more proactive in their pet’s care.
Offer online appointment scheduling
Similarly, online appointment scheduling can help remove barriers to care by empowering clients to schedule appointments at a time that works well for their schedule. This is especially important with younger clients: 68% of millennials (adults ages 25-40 years old) prefer online appointment scheduling.
You can also help make sure clients don’t forget their appointments. A common feature in an online appointment tool is the automated reminder, which can be sent via email or text message, and may include pre-visit instructions (e.g. a request for a fecal sample) or an overview of services so the pet owner comes informed and prepared.
Encourage at-home health monitoring
Annual or semi-annual exams and wellness testing are invaluable in the early diagnosis of disease. However, owner observations can be equally important. Encourage pet parents to pay careful attention to their pet’s appetite, energy levels, etc., at home. These observations can provide early indicators of disease and help guide diagnostics in the case of illness.
Additionally, if your patient develops a condition that will require regular monitoring (for example, diabetes mellitus), the pet parent will already be in the habit of monitoring their pet closely. Encouraging home observation, and guiding clients in which observations are helpful, can empower a pet parent to partner with you more effectively in their pet’s care.
Host in-person outreach opportunities
New veterinary practices often offer “Open House” events, to introduce themselves to the community. Consider welcoming your clients (or the general public) to your existing practice for educational events. These events can be as formal as informal as you would like, but they provide a way to educate and connect with your clients.
If you’re looking for inspiration, consider starting with a brief talk on pet first aid. Walk clients through common emergency scenarios and how they should respond. A PowerPoint presentation can help guide your talk, and you can even use a team member’s well-behaved pet for hands-on learning.
Your goal is to provide clients with relevant, actionable information that can improve their background understanding of veterinary medicine and empower them to make good decisions for their pet.
The Goal: Educated, empowered clients
Educated, empowered clients are not only more enjoyable to work with, they are more likely to pursue high-quality care for their pets. Gone are the days of clients wanting to have their pet’s veterinary care handled with minimal involvement on their part; today’s clients typically want to partner with their veterinarian, and this partnership requires a baseline level of veterinary knowledge. Instead of turning your clients loose on Google to find information that may or may not be accurate, work with your clients to direct them to resources that are engaging, relevant, and educational.
Cathy Barnette, DVM
Cathy Barnette, DVM is a veterinarian and freelance writer based in Florida. After 14 years as a small animal general practitioner, Dr. Barnette now focuses on creating educational content for veterinary teams and their clients. She shares her home with her husband, daughter, one dog, two cats, and a rescued white dove.