Lessons from a veterinarian

By Casey Dorrell | April 4, 2014 | Last updated on April 4, 2014
3 min read

Jill Wood, a veterinarian at Southport Animal Hospital in Stratford, PEI, told us how she helps distraught clients cope with bad news.

Problem: Choosing the right time to deliver bad news.

Solution: Since there’s no good time, full disclosure as soon as possible is the best route. As a fourth-year student, Wood had to phone a dog’s owners to tell them the animal had died in her care.

The dog had advanced heart disease, and had been staying at the small animal hospital for the weekend while its owners attended their son’s wedding. After some debate, she decided to save the news for Sunday morning, giving them Saturday to enjoy the wedding.

“I remember being a little shaky, but they were very understanding and thanked me for calling, and then said their son was actually getting married Sunday,” Wood recalls. “So waiting didn’t help, but it was [still] okay.”

Problem: Clients often look for the faintest hope when it comes to their pets’ health, which can lead to further disappointment.

Solution: “I think being straightforward is important,” says Wood. “I’ve learned that trying to sugar-coat things isn’t helpful.”

Beyond the extra disappointment, false hope can also be financially devastating. “They might go to greater lengths and [spend] more money in hopes that things will go well, when they won’t.”

But straightforward doesn’t have to mean uncaring. “Deliver information very concisely but sympathetically,” Wood says. There are no magic words to comfort a client. And they may not be listening clearly, so you have to be aware of tone and body language.

“Make sure you’re asking them questions—that it’s not one-sided. People get into issues if they try to dictate to clients what they should do.”

Breaking bad news

  • Give clients time to grieve before suggesting a new pet (or investment).

  • Educate your clients about what may be on the horizon, as this makes bad news at a later date less of a surprise.

  • Accept that sometimes you can’t avoid losing clients.

Problem: Difficult news often comes with tough decisions.

Solution: Provide your client with all the options and possible outcomes. And don’t judge. Except for the few people who buy private insurance, veterinary services aren’t covered by health plans. So pet owners are often faced with having to place a financial value on the health, and even lives, of their pets. “The more advanced the medicine gets, the more [options] are available to people. Some people feel because it’s available, they’re obligated to do it.”

Beyond reassuring clients that everyone has a financial limit, Woods explains all options—both medical and financial. For instance, those without pet insurance may be able to get special financing by way of loans or a pet-specific credit card.

Being a veterinarian means helping pet owners make difficult decisions.

Problem: Clients sometimes blame you for bad news.

Solution:If you’ve done your best to present a client with all the facts and possible courses of action, there’s nothing more you can do.

One couple brought their dog in for a routine checkup, and Wood’s partner discovered the dog had lymphoma. The owners never forgave her for doing a thorough exam and have never returned. In those cases she says, “We just commiserate and move forward.”

Casey Dorrell is a Toronto-based financial writer.

Casey Dorrell