Veterinarians pursue the profession because of a deep-seated love of animals; however, as every veterinarian knows, they also work with humans…and humans are complex communicators.
Jason B. Coe DVM, Ph.D., is a professor and leading expert in veterinary clinical communication at the Ontario Veterinary College (OVC). Since 2003, he’s studied interpersonal communication among the veterinarian community.
“It started with the relationships of the veterinarian in the examination room. How does the veterinarian communicate with clients, and how does that affect the pet’s health?” he says.
Over time, his work has expanded to also address the relationships and communication outside of the examination room, including the practice manager, the vet techs, the kennel assistant, and everyone else who makes up an effective and productive veterinary practice team.
“I look at the social side of veterinary medicine and how people within veterinary practices work, the relationships they have with each other, with their clients, and patients. Relationships are the basis of the veterinary profession, and they affect the outcomes for all involved,” Dr. Coe explains.
The Ontario Veterinary College was one of the first veterinary colleges to make this study of veterinary clinical communication part of the curriculum. And by using the Calgary Cambridge Guide as a framework, Dr. Coe coaches veterinary students through simulated conversations. Using role-play, participants experience replicated, everyday client interactions and practice communication skills that improve relationships.
Communications training was run virtually at the Ontario Veterinary College this year. The communication lab pictured is part of a course called the Art of Veterinary Medicine 2 at OVC.
In some cases, rephrasing a question can change the dynamic of a vet/client relationship. For example, it’s a common practice for a vet to ask clients what kind of food they feed their pet. Dr. Coe’s research team has shown that clients often respond with limited nutrition-related information and can sometimes become defensive to this common question.
Rather, Dr. Coe discovered a better way to open up communication regarding pet nutrition by asking a broader question: “We found instead of asking what the pet eats, we got better information if we asked, ‘Tell me everything your pet eats throughout a day, starting from first thing in the morning right through to the end of the day.’ The client shared approximately three times more nutrition-related information.”
Such a discussion can lead to a larger conversation around pet nutrition, including discovery of food items relevant to pet food allergies or obesity, while also creating an opportunity to discover common ground between the veterinarian and the client.
Dr. Coe became interested in communication while participating as a clinical instructor of a wellness rotation at the OVC in the mid-2000s. At the time, he was coaching and mentoring veterinary students by observing them in the examination room via a two-way window.
“There was a student interacting with a brother and sister that had brought in their sick cat. I was observing the interaction through the two-way window and could see the brother and sister were tense with worry. So, I stepped into the examination room to support the student, and at that time offered an empathetic response to the clients that acknowledged how scary it can be to have a sick pet. At that moment, I could see their body language relax right away,” he shares.
It takes practice to develop communication skills that help people feel engaged, respected and positive. Dr. Coe’s goal with his study of veterinary clinical communication is to help veterinary practices develop greater sustainability in their business practices and improve mental health and general wellbeing. Aligning with that goal, he will hold a new chair at the University of Guelph’s OVC to further this work.
Believed to be the first of its kind, a new one-million-dollar VCA Canada Chair in Relationship-Centred Veterinary Medicine acknowledges the importance of relationships and communication within the veterinary profession. Supporting this chair is Calgary-based VCA Canada. VCA Canada runs over 100 veterinary hospitals across Canada and is part of Mars Veterinary Health, a Mars Petcare division.
“The chair is an extension of what I’m doing. It’s an opportunity to leverage some of the things we’ve been looking at to support veterinary teams. It also increases our capacity to pursue an evidence-based approach to veterinary relationships and outcomes. I see this as the start of a piece that will develop over the years and hopefully continue to build on the veterinary profession positively,” Dr. Coe says.
The chair also provides other opportunities. “I’m excited about this new journey because it gives opportunities to contribute to the profession and for collaboration,” adds Dr. Coe.
Aside from studying mental wellbeing and developing interpersonal skills within veterinary practices, Dr. Coe keeps an eye on technology. He shares, “We’re in a period of change. With new technologies like AI, how does that impact the health and care of our patients?”
Overall, his goal is to help people within the veterinary profession build resiliency and ensure they have the support they need to excel.
In addition, Dr. Coe was recently awarded the 2021 Bustad Companion Animal Veterinarian of the Year Award. Named for the late Dr. Leo K. Bustad, former president of the Delta Society and dean of the Washington State University College of Veterinary Medicine, the award is one of veterinary medicine’s highest honors, recognizing the outstanding work of veterinarians in protecting and promoting the human-animal bond.
“It is an unexpected and genuine honor to be acknowledged with this award,” said Dr. Coe. “Dr. Bustad was a forward-thinking leader for our profession. I became aware of Dr. Bustad very early in my career because of my interest for the human-animal bond and I feel privileged to be associated with him through this award. It has been my own personal experiences and relationships with animals that have driven much of what I do and, as for many people, these relationships have been essential this past year.
“Although many challenges have arisen this past year, veterinary practices and their teams have shown great resilience, rising above the challenges to provide enduring support for people and animals. I feel privileged to be a part of the veterinary profession and to be in a position to help the profession continue to make the world a better place for people and animals,” Dr. Coe concludes. +