Columns , Communication

Hear, see and feel

Accommodating a client’s preferred learning style can lead to a more educated pet owner and better compliance.

Hear, see and feel
Teams that consistently combine verbal communication, educational tools and technology to help clients understand and retain information will attain higher compliance rates.

Several years ago, I took my Papillon, Chloe, to a veterinary dentist for removal of an oral tumor and any necessary dental care. In addition to reviewing details of the surgical procedure, he showed digital radiographs to explain which teeth needed to be removed. The dentist’s combination of auditory and visual client education built trust and reassured me that I was providing the best care for Chloe.

Consider how well your team educates clients. Does everyone understand the most common learning styles? Moreover, do they know how to tailor exam room communications so that clients can make better health care decisions?

Let’s explore how higher levels of compliance can result if you understand different learning preferences and know practical ways to improve exam room client education.

Misconceptions About Learning Styles

Much has been written about learning styles and the need to adapt teaching to help students learn and retain information. Three of the most common styles discussed are based on main sensory receivers: visual, auditory and kinesthetic (VAK). You may have seen a pie chart showing that 65 percent of the population are visual learners, 30 percent are auditory learners and 5 percent are kinesthetic learners. As a result, educators and the general public alike believe that people learn best when taught according to one identified learning style. But does scientific evidence support this premise?

Daniel Willingham, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia, says “no.” He and other researchers are striving to dispel the myth that people have a specific learning style and that teaching should be tailored to a person’s individual learning style. He says that rather than formatting lessons differently for auditory, kinetic or visual learners, teachers should tweak their instruction based on content. Willingham and other neuropsychology researchers advocate that people have different learning abilities and preferences. Collectively, many researchers today promote the idea of using a combination of education methods to maximize learning.

This is encouraging information for veterinary practice teams. Why? Because it’s not realistic for the average team to ask all pet owners their preferred learning style or accurately evaluate the style during a 20- to 30-minute appointment. Furthermore, expecting each team member to then educate clients according to their learning style is unrealistic. A more reasonable goal is to use multiple communication types and educational tools to enhance the overall learning experience for all clients.

Many veterinary professionals like to say, “An educated client is a compliant client.” The truth of this statement lies in the fact that people are more likely to agree to treatment recommendations once they fully appreciate the need for a service and fully understand the value of the service. Therefore, it is imperative that practices implement a comprehensive, team-based system to deliver the best client education.

Since the best client education system is one that accommodates different learning preferences and is engaging for the pet owner, start by making sure your team understands common ways that people like to learn. Then commit to specific action steps to improve client education.

Auditory Learning Preference

People with an auditory preference learn best by listening to information. Don’t assume that just because you talk to every client that you’ve achieved the best learning environment for the pet owner. Auditory learners like discussion and may find it helpful to repeat what they’ve heard.

To improve client education among auditory learners:

  • Provide statistics and details about the pet’s medical condition as well as care options. Make sure the “why” has been established for treatment recommendations.
  • Don’t make assumptions about the client’s knowledge. Ask open-ended questions such as “Tell me what you know about Lyme disease in dogs.” This allows the team to tailor client education for each pet owner.
  • Encourage clients to repeat the pet care instructions they are given.
  • Tell a story about another patient to help clients understand their pet’s prognosis.
  • Recommend podcasts, training CDs and support groups, if appropriate.

Visual Learning Preference

You may have heard the phrase “A picture paints a thousand words.” The expression means pictures often convey information more effectively than words alone. Visual learners like to see pictures, graphs and charts to better understand and retain information. People who learn predominantly with their eyes are more sensitive to the educator’s nonverbal communication. This means your body language needs to be positive and match the verbal messages.

A variety of visual tools used in veterinary medicine can help clients better understand medical conditions and treatment recommendations. Use a visual aid — chart, graph, diagram, picture, brochure or video — during every appointment to augment auditory messages. Go through your hospital’s drawers and files to gather all your client education tools. Decide which ones are current, relevant and aligned with your medical standards. Then start using them.

Here are other steps to improve client education for visual learners:

  • Be sure to show clients their dog’s bad teeth or their kitten’s ear mites. Don’t miss the opportunity to display the medical equipment used during exams. For example, show clients the completed SNAP test and the Tono-Pen or Doppler used on the pet.
  • Use the body condition score chart when discussing obesity and weight management.
  • When a patient has periodontal disease, show images of the teeth before and after a dental cleaning.
  • Use graphs to show trends in a pet’s lab values, and routinely email lab results to clients.
  • Draw pictures when explaining congestive heart failure or orthopedic surgery.
  • Have clients watch videos, such as instructions for how to pill a cat or brush a dog’s teeth.
  • Give written instructions to augment auditory education.
  • Use tablet computers to show images or where to find credible information on recommended websites.

Kinesthetic Learning Preference

Kinesthetic learners prefer a hands-on approach. They like to be involved with physical movement or want to touch and feel an object.

Here are ideas for modifying client education with kinesthetic learners:

  • Let pet owners feel any lumps you find. Let them listen if you detect a heart murmur.
  • Let clients practice after you demonstrate how to brush teeth, give subcutaneous fluids or administer an insulin injection.
  • Encourage clients to set up and use recommended apps, your online store or pet portals while they are at your practice.

In my experience, most practice teams think they do a good job with client education — and they do — but they rely mostly on verbal messages and the passive handing out of brochures. Teams that consistently combine verbal communication, educational tools and technology to help clients understand and retain information will attain higher compliance rates.

Here is my challenge for your hospital: Implement a plan to accommodate multiple learning preferences during exam room communications so your team can help clients make decisions that are right for their family and that get pets the care they deserve.

Talk the Talk columnist Dr. Amanda L. Donnelly is a speaker, business consultant and second-generation veterinarian. She is the author of “101 Practice Management Questions Answered” and serves on the Today’s Veterinary Business editorial advisory board.

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