By Michael W. Miller, DVM
The appointment started with the client expressing his frustration with the previous vet he saw at our partner hospital who didn’t seem to make his dog any better. As this gentlemen was completing his story telling me all about the horrible doctor at that other location, his wife interrupted to let him know that the doctor he saw earlier…was actually me. Oops.
The client’s frustration revolved around another miscommunication. His complaint was that his dog had been “hunched” since the last visit. I had apparently caused the problem and it never went away after the injection that I gave at the last visit. The guy claimed that I told him the injection I gave would cause this “hunched” posture. That didn’t sound like something I would have said. Something didn’t add up.
As I delved into the dog’s medical history, I uncovered that at the previous visit I diagnosed mild dehydration and treated with subcutaneous fluids. That shouldn’t have caused a painful posture, and I wouldn’t have warned the owner that the dog would be “hunched” afterward… but… wait…
I realized that “hunched” sounded like part of my normal subcutaneous fluids spiel. In an attempt to break the tension and reference something the owners may recognize, I often tell owners that the fluid bubble under the skin would cause the dog to temporarily have a “hunchback” appearance. Unfortunately, this time the owner didn’t understand my explanation. Miscommunication turned my usually well-received analogy into a cause for the owner to misinterpret his dog’s pain as a normal side effect from the treatment.
In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, we see the main characters learning how to perform spells. One memorable early lesson involving the Levitation Charm introduces us to how important appropriate communication is in the wizarding world. By changing the emphasized syllable from LeviosA to LeviOsa, Hermione gave flight to her feather.
An important aspect of this lesson, is that Ron, who was saying LeviosA, did not realize what he was doing was incorrect. When miscommunication happens, it’s unintentional. Ron didn’t mean to pronounce the spell wrong, just like I didn’t mean to give my client inappropriate advice.
So, how can we prevent miscommunication in veterinary medicine? And what do we do when miscommunication happens?
Miscommunication can be avoided by simply checking in with the pet owner. If you see a confused look spread across the client’s face, stop and ask if they have any questions. Even if you don’t see that social clue, asking the client if they understood what you just told them is a great way to end any conversation in the hospital. The wording I have adopted goes: “I know I’ve just thrown a lot of information at you. Do you have any questions about anything I just said?”
When miscommunication happens, acknowledge it and then try to explain what you meant. For my client who I had upset at his previous visit, I apologized for the misunderstanding. I explained where I think the breakdown of communication occurred. Then, I moved on to discussing what we could do next.
Notice that I didn’t assign blame to him or me. When miscommunication happens, the blame really does fall on both parties. Pointing fingers doesn’t help, and how the correction is presented can be upsetting if you are smug about it. Hermione was rarely wrong (and we must forgive her because she was just a young first-year student during this incident) but she made a mistake by correcting Ron in a way that belittled him. Please learn from this rare Hermione error and avoid the temptation to promote yourself as the better person because you were the smarter individual. Instead, I find that focusing energy on how to move forward is much more helpful to everyone involved.
So, please watch out for the pitfalls of miscommunication in your practice. Use the pronunciation of the levitation charm to remind you of the magic of effectively recognizing and managing miscommunication.