Answering the unanswerable and other trials inherent to veterinary Q & A
I was listening to this radio show on NPR on Thanksgiving morning when it suddenly occurred to me: Answering questions for a radio show on cooking turkeys is pretty much the same as answering questions for a pet health website.
How so? It’s entertaining...regardless of whether you’re asking, answering or just tuning in. Questioners and listeners/readers get more informed. The answering party gets put on the spot and has to work hard to stay on top of the subject matter. And, of course, no cash is exchanged (a universal truism for Q & A formats, it would seem).
The only difference? Well...the turkeys are already dead. Meanwhile, we’re hoping the pets can still be saved.
Problem is, so many of the questions that arrive online for my new Q & A gig at PetMD are...
#1 time sensitive (as in, they require a veterinarian NOW!),
#2 demandingly phrased (you MUST help!), and
#3 grammatically incoherent (but I can live with this, really).
Gets me to feeling like Luke Skywalker intercepting Princess Leia’s plaintive message to Obi Wan Kenobi (“You’re my only hope!”). After all, when I’m reading an urgent message written almost 72 hours ago there’s really no way to feel good about receiving it. All you can do is hope the pet got some help from a non-virtual vet. Talk about compassion fatigue...
So you understand, this is a trial run for an online environment that needs lots of tweaking before it’ll work the way I want it to. I’ve been playing with the “back end” of this Q & A machine all week, receiving and answering pet owner queries I’ve prioritized according to my personal degree of interest in the question’s subject matter.
Trouble is, not everyone working on the project is on the same page. We disagree over the fundamental issues of quantity over quality and degree of urgency. Should I answer every question that comes my way, as my editors would like? Do I “triage” them based on severity, answering the most horrific situations first? (Also what my editors would like.) Meanwhile, my impulse is to completely ignore the losers who look to the web for solutions any numbskull knows won’t suddenly materialize online.
And how detailed should the answers be? Do I treat them quickly and technically so that I can serve as many pet owners as possible or do I handle them with an eye towards the larger teaching points involved so that a wider audience can learn from one representative owner’s experience? (e.g., as I do for the Q & A style I've honed for my weekly Miami Herald column).
Lots of websites carry “Ask the Vet” sections that seem to serve as impressively effective traffic magnets. Indeed, if they’re anything like PetMD’s, tons of questions come in every day; too much for any one veterinarian to answer. But not too many should multiple veterinarians do the work, as is being proposed for the future of this new and shockingly popular feature (it debuted this past Monday and already I’ve got hundreds of questions lined up).
So here’s where you get to help me out yet again: What would YOU prefer in a Q & A?...
#1 On a scale of 1 to 10, how important is it that your individual question get answered (10 being extremely important).
#2 On the same scale, how important is it that the answer be very detailed and specific?
#3 And, finally... how important is it that you know who the person answering your question is?
For now, I’m addressing as many questions as I can with an eye towards short-term section population and finding that sweet spot between quality and quantity (right now it’s definitely skewed to the left)...while trying to maintain my sanity in the face of a burgeoning workload. You know, you really can get to feeling like the hapless victim of your own success. But then again, it’s all in how you handle it, right?