Do you understand when your vet talks in 'Vetspeak'?
It’s no surprise that George Orwell (of Animal Farm fame) often wrote scathingly about politicians. He once penned the most impressively damning line I’ve ever read on the subject of “politician-speak”: “Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give the appearance of solidity to pure wind.”
Ouch. I’m so glad he never took up the subject of veterinarians and human docs with respect to our own medical gobbledegook. I bet his criticism would have been much the same. After all, we use jargon indiscriminately, speak evasively when directly probed and can talk in concentric circles on any given point of medical interest. (See what I mean?)
Only politicians and lawyers more reprehensibly befuddle their audiences, if only because they manage to do so without using arcane terminology. At least we have the excuse of being taught to use a whole new language, as in: “he has a compression of his fifth and sixth caudal vertebral segments,” instead of “he broke his tail.”
Still, it’s one of our primary responsibilities, as veterinarians, to ensure that people understand what we say. So we have to know how to turn on the jargon filter and screen out the medicalese. But it’s not so easy to do as it sounds.
Some words have a way of indelibly etching themselves into our gray matter, making translation seem unnecessary from our warped perspective. (What do you mean I have to explain what “gray matter” is?)
What’s worse, it seems some docs just like to hear themselves talk in tall terms. They wrap themselves up in a white coat of words, saying things like: It seems we’re dealing with a confounding episode of acute feline ptyalism. (Translation: “I don’t know why your cat is drooling all of a sudden.”)
It often seems the medical terms breed one another, especially when we have no clue what’s wrong with your pet. Why? Because the three most odious words in any medical person’s lexicon are, “I don’t know.” We’ll say anything to get out of using them, and not because we fear lawsuits or anything more substantial than your disregard.
Vets, like human docs, are in a position where they expect respect because they feel they’ve earned their right to it. We know we’re the ones you look to when you’re in crisis or just plain need advice. We’ve bought into that role so much that sometimes we can’t bear to tell you how clueless we really feel. In fact, I think some of us get so wrapped up in our own egoes that we don’t even know what we don’t know.
My advice to pet owners everywhere, as to patients and caretakers in general, is to pull the doc out of his or her clinical comfort zone. Ask questions. Get personal. “What would you do if this was your pet?” is never a bad place to start. Why? Because it makes me squirm. And that can’t be all bad.
But whatever you do, consider Orwell’s fine lines and never let us get away with blowing a pretty breeze your way when what you really need is a solid hurricane.