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Less pet stress and anxiety leads to better medicine

Satisfying a patient’s emotional needs requires buy-in from most or all of the veterinary team.

Less pet stress and anxiety leads to better medicine

Our ever-changing veterinary industry has seen strong momentum toward the removal of fear, anxiety and stress in patients at general and specialty practices. While I was immediately intrigued by this initiative — popularized by Dr. Marty Becker’s Fear Free campaign — some unknowns initially presented themselves. Among them:

  • How would this seemingly common-sense way of working with patients integrate into animal hospitals — practices with decades of established protocols and veteran associates used to a certain exam-room style?
  • What would this cost my practice, and would I see a return on investment?

As I talk with practice owners and veterinarians across the country, one question prevails: How does spending more time with clients, more time in the exam room and more time on a “happy” visit — a visit without an active client transaction — translate into more revenue and a profitable business model?

In today’s environment of constant competition and challenges online, will this set my practice apart?

Small Price to Pay

I have found that the cost of practicing with the goal of satisfying pets’ (and their owners’) emotional needs is minimal given the multiple benefits we have seen. Our associates feel they can perform more thorough physical exams on patients who previously displayed anxiety, and staff members have become empowered as they sometimes see immediate reductions in patient fear, anxiety and stress through their consistent messaging and techniques.

Our workers’ compensation claims are the lowest in years due to better assessment of patients, improved handling strategies and the utilization of sedation techniques earlier and more confidently. Finally, our clients often comment positively on social media and web-based review sites, increasing our search engine optimization and client referral numbers.

Changing a work culture can be challenging and daunting, and doing it sometimes seems like an incredible uphill climb. To help combat this struggle and set the foundation for success, I strongly advocate identifying champions in your practice. Each team in your hospital should have a designated leader. Strategic planning sessions should be scheduled to delegate each team’s responsibilities and how best to introduce and educate clients and other team members.

It is incredibly important to have the majority, if not all, of your team cross-trained, educated and participating in this initiative. If your reception or client services team does not believe in the tenets of removing patient fear, anxiety and stress, and if it fails to communicate vital information to new clients, such as successful strategies for placing cats in carriers, the other team members will be set up for a failed happy visit.

One challenge communicated by associates is the perceived extra time involved in fulfilling an animal’s emotional needs. Will more client communication be needed before the exam? More explanation? More sedatives and anti-anxiety medications? Will it be harder to stay on time?

I made sure to spend time with associates to proactively answer questions and make sure we could all embrace these new handling techniques and approaches. How we meet the emotional needs of our patients and clients has been constantly evolving, but we find that these techniques allow us to be much more thorough in our physical exams of anxious patients.

We can show clients their dog or cat’s teeth and oral cavity and explain the need for dental radiography and periodontal work. We can obtain lab samples and do more-thorough wellness screenings. These aspects and many others create confidence in your client and promote compliance, more complete medicine and client buy-in for additional diagnostics and therapeutics necessary with gold-standard medicine. Excellence in medicine promotes excellence in business.

Sprays and Treats

For starters, it’s important to map your practice, locating all areas where cats and dogs spend time, from the lobby to the radiology room. All these areas will benefit from pheromone therapy.

We place Adaptil and Feliway diffusers throughout the hospital and switch the inserts monthly. We use large bottles of Adaptil and Feliway sprays — about 25 and 50 ounces, respectively, each month — to impregnate towels and scrubs and even the bandanas owners can place on their dog as they wait for an exam room.

Food purchases are one of our largest weekly operating costs. Our nine-doctor practice typically goes through 20 to 25 pounds of peanut butter, 50 hot dogs, 2 pounds of tuna, 1 pound of squeeze cheese, 1 pound of American cheese slices and 1 pound of cream cheese each week. To make this the most economical for the practice, we order in bulk online and utilize a treat ladder. We start by offering peanut butter cups to minimally anxious or fearful patients and save the hot dogs and squeeze cheese for those with high levels of anxiety or the need for an instant reward.

While these tactics may seem like a small addition to an annual exam, the return has been exponential — positive online reviews, strong client surveys and referrals, and immediate improvements in patient behavior. All these somewhat intangibles translate into better medicine, a busier practice and an improved bottom line.

Need for Teamwork

Another cost to consider is the need for staff or outsourced time to produce social media and website education about ways to remove patient fear, anxiety and stress. We initially worked with our website developer on a dedicated page, and support teams were tasked with taking photos and videos for our Facebook and Instagram sites.

Again, while a small amount of time was taken away from staff duties and daily responsibilities, the client feedback on social media and client referrals paid off almost immediately. Remember, 80 percent of your revenue comes from 20 percent of your clients. Keeping that philosophy in mind, we always want those compliant and bonded clients to refer similar clients. As any growing business knows, it costs money to make money.

A strong hospital performs better medicine. Addressing the emotional needs of patients and clients is an important element that helps practices reach that goal.

Fearless columnist Dr. Natalie Marks is co-owner of Blum Animal Hospital in Chicago. She is Fear Free certified.