In the midst of crisis, turn fear and anxiety into clinic opportunities.
Asking my team members “How are you?” was difficult in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic. The responses typically were accompanied by sagging shoulders and expressions of frustration, sadness or uncertainty. The pandemic waged war on our physical, emotional, and mental and financial health, but we continued to drag ourselves to work to fulfill our oath as veterinary professionals. Two positive aspects that remained in our hospitals was the ability to take care of our patients’ physical and emotional health and to lead and inspire our teams.
Before we look for the opportunities and silver linings in the dark cloud that covered our country, let’s acknowledge these realities:
- Hospitals faced many obstacles to excellent financial health. The temporary cessation of elective surgeries and wellness visits was significant.
- Team members were furloughed or had hours cut.
- The workflow was dramatically different at many practices because of safety precautions for clients and employees.
- Mental health challenges within the industry were exacerbated, and some team members were taxed even more by having to home-school children.
- Veterinary and industry professionals wondered what the ongoing research would reveal with respect to the domesticated cat and transmission of COVID-19.
The Effects on Pets
Adding to all this, veterinary hospitals that strive to reduce fear, anxiety and stress in patients identified unexpected triggers as a result of the pandemic. Many dogs and cats feel more comfortable in the presence of their owner, but after clinics started barring clients from entering the hospital, increased anxiety and even reactivity were noticed in patients, some of them for the first time.
Hospital team members greeting patients while wearing all forms of personal protective equipment triggered new behaviors. Patients that never required pre-visit pharmaceuticals started to struggle in the hospital setting.
When suddenly faced with a widespread crisis, leaders can easily be overwhelmed and unable to find a starting point. But as billionaire businessman Richard Branson stated so eloquently, “Communication becomes the most important skill any leader can possess.”
What You Can Do
Let’s be transparent and focus on what we know to be true. We know that our body language and anxiety can affect dogs and cats. We know that many of our team members are anxious, nervous, uncertain and stressed by what might be happening in the workplace and also with home pressures. This can affect their performance.
What we all need to remember is that within every crisis is opportunity. The hard part is identifying the opportunities and finding the time, energy and resolve to move up when everyone around you is sliding down. Whether you have a Fear Free-certified hospital or are completely new to the movement, this “new normal” might provide the opportunity for you and your team to regroup and invest in ways to reduce fear, anxiety and stress inside and outside of your hospital.
Start by encouraging pet owners to reduce pet anxiety both at home and en route to your hospital through the use of compression garments, pheromone or motion-sickness therapies, calming music, and medications and supplements prescribed by a veterinarian. If a patient starts to show new or unexpected behaviors in the hospital, communicate these to the client and explain how to prevent permanent fear triggers. This is also a great time to make sure all team members are comfortable recognizing these behaviors.
From Treats to CE
Here are 11 other ideas.
- Do you have a treat menu? Allow clients to choose the high-reward food offerings given to patients during exams, diagnostics and treatments. The menu can be posted on your website and social media channels.
- Update your nutrition inventory and online pharmacy. So many multifunctional diets incorporate calming therapies and nutraceuticals. Feature them in your online pharmacy, which is truly essential to the financial health of your practice. Not only will the online store generate revenue, but it also will bond clients to you and provide much-needed customer service to people who might be homebound or in need of convenient home delivery.
- Focus on new pets. We know that many families fostered or adopted dogs and cats during the pandemic. The animals were quickly exposed to new housemates and perhaps without healthy introductions and training. Tell clients about pheromone collars, online obedience classes and socialization best practices.
- Don’t forget other pets. We know that many clients who stayed at home eventually will go back to work, so we might see a tremendous rise in separation anxiety. Many people relied on their dogs and cats for physical and emotional support during the pandemic, so while we don’t want to discourage those bonding moments altogether, you should stress to clients that periods of separation are important. Making home entrances and exits non-events and acknowledging the dog or cat when it is settled and calm is important.
- Create a Spotify list of appropriate music. Clients can use it at home when pets are alone, during car travel and when stress triggers such as thunderstorms or house guests are expected. Consider asking team members to create lists of ways to improve the work culture.
- Train in cooperative veterinary care. This newer strategy for preventing fear and calming reactive and anxious patients involves protocols for obtaining diagnostics with minimal human interaction.
- Get more out of social media posts and videos. Clients crave not only factual information about the pandemic but also uplifting stories about how the human-animal bond helps human mental health. This is also a great time to ask clients what their “new normal” routine looks like as far as enriching their pets’ lives.
- Implement telemedicine. The technology has never been more at the forefront of veterinarians’ minds. Look for a platform that would work well based on your practice size, workflow and practice management software. I encourage you to reach out to your state to understand the legalities and to your PMS administrator to understand compatibility.
- Introduce clients to Fear Free Happy Homes. This free website, fearfreehappyhomes.com, helps clients implement strategies for reducing fear, anxiety and stress in the home.
- Complete continuing education modules and webinars. While some in-person conferences that we love attending might be on hold, many webinars and social media events allow interactive discussion with the presenter.
- Most important, continually remind ourselves to be proud of who we are and what we can offer the world. We also need to remind ourselves to be gentle and kind with each other and our inner selves and that everyone does what he or she can to get through each day.
Be safe, stay well and remember that we are in this together.
Fearless columnist Dr. Natalie Marks is co-owner of Blum Animal Hospital in Chicago. She is Fear Free certified.